God in his Heavens

by Kieran Healy on January 31, 2006

I learned yesterday via a local newspaper report of the existence of the Vatican Observatory which, surprising as it may seem, is exactly what it sounds like: the astrophysics research division of the Catholic Church. While its headquarters are at Castel Gandolfo (the Pope’s Summer home) in Italy, it’s based here in Arizona at the Mount Graham Observatory. There, a bunch of Jesuits operate the VATT, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope. I think that’s just fantastic—like something out of Phillip Pullman. Is it too much to hope for the Vatican Superconducting Supercollider, which would once and for all resolve the question of how many angels would be killed if a stream of particles were smashed into the head of a pin?

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jlw 01.31.06 at 9:59 am

On the other hand, the Vatican has been deeply involved in astronomy for most of its existence. Pinning down the motion of the sun and moon was critically important in determining things such as the date of Easter Sunday and . . . the date of Easter Monday.

But seriously, the fact that the Church of Rome engages in straightforward astronomy is no more weird than General Motors doling out health insurance. Or even the State of Arizona hiring philosophers.


d'Herblay 01.31.06 at 10:02 am

Only now? Fr. Guy Consolmagno was the recipient of phenomenal publicity, including a slot on Tom Snyder’s show or some such, back when his (worth your while) book came out.


Cryptic Ned 01.31.06 at 10:03 am

Or the highest-paid state employee in…how many American states now? being a football coach.


cw 01.31.06 at 10:03 am

Not just Pullman, also Doria Russell’s book, The Sparrow, where the Jesuits organize a trip to contact an alien race.


abb1 01.31.06 at 10:05 am


John Emerson 01.31.06 at 10:09 am

The Vatican Observatory had a big conflict with the locals (Apaches) when it was founded:

“May 25, ’92 George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory declares Apache beliefs ‘a kind of religiosity..which must be suppressed with all the force we can muster.'”

Mount Graham Coalition


Steve LaBonne 01.31.06 at 10:11 am

They’re doing experimental theology. ;)


Jacob T. Levy 01.31.06 at 10:21 am

how many angels would be killed if a stream of particles were smashed into the head of a pin?

made me snort coffee. Not nice to be that funny this early in the morning.


Amber 01.31.06 at 10:22 am

like something out of Phillip Pullman

Or Mary Doria Russell.


Delicious pundit 01.31.06 at 10:52 am

how many angels would be killed if a stream of particles were smashed into the head of a pin?

Why, all of them.


Kieran Healy 01.31.06 at 11:03 am

the fact that the Church of Rome engages in straightforward astronomy is no more weird than General Motors doling out health insurance.

I didn’t say I thought it was weird, I said thought it was great.


JJ 01.31.06 at 11:07 am

Aren’t angels immortal beings? So the answer would be “None of them.” You’d probably ruffle a few feathers, though.


alkali 01.31.06 at 11:13 am

There is an entertaining SF novel called The Sparrow which is essentially a “first contact” story involving a Jesuit mission to a nearby star.


Steve LaBonne 01.31.06 at 11:20 am

But the best clerical-astronomy SF story has got to be Arthur C. Clarke’s classic “The Star”.


Anderson 01.31.06 at 11:35 am

And let’s not forget James Blish’s Jesuit in “A Case of Conscience” (superior, I think, to the expanded-into-a-novel version).


Sean 01.31.06 at 11:47 am

Yep, the Vatican has some well-respected astronomers. But you’re right, we should get them to buy more heavily into particle physics. Lord knows they have some money.


Kieran Healy 01.31.06 at 11:50 am

Lord knows they have some money.

He knows everything, Sean.


Russell Arben Fox 01.31.06 at 12:43 pm

If we’re talking the Catholic Church and science fiction, let’s not forget the obvious (and best) example: A Canticle for Liebowitz.


paul 01.31.06 at 12:49 pm

No real surprise, but the notion that anyone should be surprised at the Vatican funding serious science is a sad sign of how thoroughly modern pharisees (and heck, I’m probbably unjustifiably insulting pharisaism at that) have polluted religious discourse. It used to go without sayest that one of the highest purposes for the faithful was to understand the Creation, rather than to make rules claiming to restrict the creator’s modes of action.


Steve LaBonne 01.31.06 at 12:52 pm

It a pity that paul wasn’t around to explain that idea to Cardinal Bellarmine…


Gene O'Grady 01.31.06 at 12:54 pm

There are some snazzy 18th century pictures of astronomers doing their thing in the Vatican Pinacoteca, if anyone has the good fortune to be in Rome some time and you want to look beyond the Big Names.


alienacean 01.31.06 at 1:57 pm

hasn’t dr. fr. andrew greeley written some crazy sci-fi?


Peter 01.31.06 at 2:15 pm

The Vatican Museum has in it a piece of moon-rock presented to Pope Paul VI by the Nixon administration.


alkali 01.31.06 at 2:51 pm

Hmmm. Did I miss the Sparrow references prior to my 11:13 am post — hardly impossible — or did they somehow show up after I posted? Can anyone explain this anomaly (without reference to travel at relativistic speeds)?


Tim 01.31.06 at 2:53 pm

There is an entertaining SF novel called The Sparrow which is essentially a “first contact” story involving a Jesuit mission to a nearby star.

I read that at first as “a Jesuit mission to a nearby bar.”


Matt 01.31.06 at 3:16 pm

When I was a post-doc I met a grad student in astrophysics who was a fundamentalist Christian– universe created in seven literal days, etc. & so forth. I asked him if there wasn’t something contradictory there between his work and his beliefs, and he said… ‘No’.


Steve LaBonne 01.31.06 at 4:07 pm

matt- I forget who said that man is not the rational animal, but the rationalizing animal.


Adam Kotsko 01.31.06 at 4:19 pm

Among the decisions made at the Council of Nicea was to entrust the church of Alexandria with informing all the other churches of the date of Easter, since they had the best astronomers at the time. Due to light pollution, that task falls to the diocese of Flagstaff, Ariz. — it’s a shame, though, that the Vatican Observatory lacks a figure of the stature of Athanasius (whose Easter Letters can be found here) to get the message out in an edifying way.


Hektor Bim 01.31.06 at 5:10 pm

Paul is right. It shouldn’t be surprising at all to people that the Vatican is intimately involved in scientific research. The Jesuits have always been that way, and some are very active in, for example, evolutionary biology.

I suspect the reason the Vatican isn’t heavily involved in string theory is that they already have enough religion in their lives.


Bob B 01.31.06 at 5:52 pm

Great to learn of the Vatican’s enduring interest in astronomy but how come this then?

Galileo Galilei 1564-1642
Italian astronomer and physicist. The first to use a telescope to study the stars. Discoverer of the first moons of an extraterrestrial body Galileo was an outspoken supporter of Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. In reaction to Galileo, the Church declared it heresy to teach that the Earth moved and silenced him. The Church clung to this position for 350 years; Galileo was not formally exonerated until 1992.


JohnLopresti 01.31.06 at 6:12 pm

KH has launched an interesting metaphysical discussion here with some earthly roots. Living as I do on a mountaintop ranch, I am interested, as well in the remoteness of the topic. It turns out the Vatican observatory has a storeyed past. The site on Mt. Graham was a kind of Moses venue for Apache aborigines whose prayer adepts communicated with empyrean entities atop its crest, one of the tallest in a remote part of southern eastern AZ on the high Sonoran desert. Besides indigenous peoples, in postcolonial times notoriously tenacious about surrendering their territory to invading Philadelphians and the like, the Mt. Graham observatory had a rocky beginning: an alliance was formed with the Univ. of AZ, but many other contracting universities and institutions bailed from the construction upon discovering diverse resistance from locals in this sparsely populated region. It turns out the mountain encompasses an extraordinary spectrum of biological zones fairly unique in North America, among the denizens rare and endangered animals, and forests only in the 1980s beginning to tumble to the civilized folks’ businesses’ chainsaws. Imagine everything from saguaro cacti trouping across the plains like cryopreserved Jesuit missionaries emerging shadowlike from colonial times when, indeed, Jesuits traveled these lands, to the noble and sparse peak reaching 10,500′ el. The observatory which UA and the Vatican partnered to build marred and rendered profane that pristine crest, as is standard practice in human endeavors, it would seem, even in such noble and lofty projects as measuring the orbs through the refractory and sparse desert atmosphere.
One supposes it is helpful to contemplate the cosmos from a peak. Additionally, it is known that Jesuits are researchers, and their tradition is that of starting universities.
I agree with some of the posters, above, that the participation of the Jesuits has multiple depths; I would expect one such strategem is a mutual bond of trust buidling between the current pope and the leadership of the Jesuit Society, whereby the notoriously liberal voice of Jesuits is putatively less audible when muffled by the loftiness of the mount; however, this is only a momentary benefit, having fewer Jesuits in the mainstream of political and scholarly discourse, as sooner probably than later, they are likely to descend from the mountain, better informed, and waxing loquacious.

One recension of the tale of the Jesuits’ first involvement with this particular site is their receipt of the donation of a cast-off Strategic Defense Initiative telescope, which it cost the Society only $600,000. to house and situate on Mt. Graham; by far, the UA was the largest participant in the construction which occurred over a decade ago.
That is a lot of oracles downloaded; and the state of AZ has a larger scope than the Jebbies. We shall see which entity is best organized to datamine all that unfiltered intergalactic data, for the sake of research. ad astram per asperum.
if you are a hiker, this is the topo map
geophysical history and Apache prayer promontory, animal communities data Says UA made the environmental organizations go to court to force discovery of names of contracting parties sponsoring construction; lots of FOIA material.
Mt Graham Int’l Observatory’s own site history page.
small swale full of saguaro cacti
saguaro cactus grove in national parklands near Tucson
closeup saguaro grove, ibid.
SJ sponsored Fulbright scholar> on Brazilian deforestation, at Fairfield, CT campus this year.
SJs waxing philosophical


Tim 01.31.06 at 6:27 pm

We all know the Church has issues admitting it’s wrong, but let’s keep the discussion light-hearted: I heard that the diocese in Florida where Cape Canaveral is located is the largest diocese in the church because it’s responsible for all of space. Can anyone tell me if that’s true?


rollo 01.31.06 at 6:57 pm

Kieran, the question is how many angels would get out of the way, or in the case of intermittent bursts, dance.


Ted 01.31.06 at 6:57 pm

I’m not at all surprised you have just found
out about something that has existed for

Most of your opinions on the world at large
present the exact same evidence of your …
well … ignorance of reality.

Perhaps a trip to the library is in order.
And this time, why not check out some books
not found in the Childrens or Young Adults

Hint: Learn how not to move your lips
when you are reading.


Bro. Bartleby 01.31.06 at 7:32 pm

Some Jesuit brothers of interest:

José de Acosta, S.J. – 1600: Geophysical Sciences
François De Aguilon, S.J. – 1617: Six books on Optics
Roger Joseph Boscovich, S.J. – 1787: atomic theory
Christopher Clavius, S.J. – 1612: Gregorian Calendar
Honoré Fabri, S.J. – 1688: post-calculus geometry
Francesco M. Grimaldi, S.J. – 1663: diffraction of light
Paul Guldin, S.J. – 1643: applications of Guldin’s Rule
Maximilian Hell, S.J. – 1792: Mesmerizing encounters
Athanasius Kircher, S.J. – 1680: Master of a Hundred Arts
Francesco Lana-Terzi, S.J. – 1687: Father of Aeronautics
Francis Line, S.J. – 1654: clock maker
Juan Molina, S.J. – 1829: First Scientist of Chile
Jerôme Nadal, S.J. -1580: perspective art and composition of place
Ignace Pardies, S.J. – 1673: influence on Newton
Andrea Pozzo, S.J. – 1709: perspective geometry
Vincent Riccati, S.J. – 1775: hyperbolic functions
Matteo Ricci, S.J. – 1610: brought scientific innovations to China
John Baptist Riccioli, S.J. – 167I: selenograph
Girolamo Saccheri, S.J. – 1733: his solution to Euclid’s blemish
Theorems of Saccheri, S.J. – 1733: non Euclidean Geometry
Johann Adam Schall von Bell, S.J. – 1669: Astronomy and the calendar
Christopher Scheiner, S.J. – 1650: sunspots and his equatorial mount
Gaspar Schott, S.J. – 1666: experiment at Magdeburg
Angelo Secchi, S.J. – 1878: Father of Astrophysics
Joseph Stepling, S.J. – 1650: symbolic logic and his research academy
André Tacquet, S.J. – 1660: treatment of infinitesimals
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S. J. – 1955: The Phenomenon of man
Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. – 1688: Jesuit scientist in China
Gregory Saint Vincent, S.J. – 1667: polar coordinates
Nicolas Zucchi, S.J. – 1670: telescope maker

Oh yeah, Jerry Brown.


Walt Pohl 01.31.06 at 7:55 pm

Bro. Bartleby: You listed Saccheri twice (and “solution to Euclid’s blemish” is overstating the matter).


Bro. Bartleby 01.31.06 at 8:08 pm

The brothers need all the help and overstatement that they can get in these days of mock and ridicule of all things Christian. Oops, I’m suppose to remain light-hearted. :-) Forgive me.


LogicGuru 01.31.06 at 10:56 pm

Christians are damned if we do and damned if we don’t it seems. When dumb fundamentalists promote bogus pseudo-science it’s bad; when smart Jesuits do real science it’s laughable.


chris lovell 02.01.06 at 3:25 am

JohnLopresti: that’s ad astra per aspera (to the stars through difficulties). State motto of Kansas, by the way.

logicguru: I don’t think too many posters are saying this is “laughable”–at least, not in a disparaging way. Rather, it’s surprising and delightful. I wouldn’t be too surprised if a few CT readers/posters either work at or were educated at Jesuit institutions, and are appropriately grateful for the Society’s devotion to education.


bad Jim 02.01.06 at 4:30 am

I remember reading, decades ago, of an American Humanities Association meeting which was picketed by people who were scandalized by the presence of *gasp!* humanists in their midst.

The many Jesuits attending were reported to have found the festivities amusing.


Bob B 02.01.06 at 7:55 am

“The brothers need all the help and overstatement that they can get in these days of mock and ridicule of all things Christian.”

Not ridicule, just a more enlightened perspective.

Remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”?

The flaw with that, as GB Shaw appreciated, is that the tastes of others in a pluralist society may not be the same.

Confucius had got there c. 500BC:

“Tsze-kung asked, saying, ‘Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?’ The Master said, ‘Is not RECIPROCITY such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.’
Confucius Analects, Book XV


Kieran Healy 02.01.06 at 8:01 am

Just by the by, I was well aware that the church had a long history of involvement in astronomy — and other sciences, too. (Mendel, anyone?) What I didn’t know was that it presently operated a large telescope in Arizona, let alone that it had the excellent name of “VATT.”

Oh, and thanks for the advice, Ted at #34.


Peter 02.01.06 at 8:04 am

Bob B (post 30):

For too long, scientists have managed to spin the supression of Galileo’s work by the Catholic Church as one of truth vs. falsity. The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend argued that the Church supressed Galileo’s work not because they believed it was false (in fact, the opposite), but because they thought the social consequences of the theory becoming widely known would be deleterious, both in general and to their own particular social position. Feyerabend argued that they were quite rational to act as they did.

In any case, the RC Church was not alone in supressing ideas they considered dangerous for society. Isaac Newton did the same with his theological works, claiming that only a small elite should have access to his knowledge.


Bro. Bartleby 02.01.06 at 9:31 am

39. “Rather, it’s surprising and delightful.” What I think is surprising, is that some folks are surprised with what I previously thought common knowledge.

43. I think it was Galileo who kept to the belief of circular orbits as opposed to Kempler’s elliptical orbits, of which some Jesuit astronomers agreed with through observation.

41. Tsze-kung asked about friendship. The Master said, “Faithfully admonish your friend, and skillfully lead him on. If you find him impracticable, stop. Do not disgrace yourself.”


Kieran Healy 02.01.06 at 11:07 am

what I previously thought common knowledge

It’s certainly well known that the church has made lots of contributions to science over the centuries. I don’t think it’s common knowledge that the Vatican presently runs a telescope in Arizona.


Peter Erwin 02.01.06 at 11:49 am

The VATT is sometimes referred to as the “Pope-scope”.

The Vatican Observatory also runs a well-regarded summer school for astronomy students.

Re Galileo: some historians have argued that the Church was worried about heliocentrism lending support to weird sun-worshipping heresies. Giordano Bruno had recently been burned at the stake for promoting the idea that what Europe really needed was a return to the true religion of ancient Egypt (as interpreted by Bruno). Bruno was very keen on heliocentric astronomy, perhaps because he was aware that the ancient Egyptians venerated the sun.

A comparison of the Church suppressing heliocentric astronomy (and Galileo’s scientific work) with Newton keeping his own ideas secret is hardly apropos.


Bro. Bartleby 02.01.06 at 12:42 pm

45. My previous thought of common knowledge has been revised. Of course we of the desert climes are but a stones throw of VATT, and by the way, are too stargazers ourselves.


Peter 02.01.06 at 1:23 pm

46: Of course it is appropos: Newton wrote explictly that he thought his religious ideas dangerous if allowed to become known beyond a very small circle. He considered himself one of the select, chosen by God to discover and safeguard His law, whether revealed in Nature or in scripture. Same elitist view of knowledge as the RC Church at the time.

Newton refrained from publishing his religious views also because they were heretical, and he would have suffered immensely for them if they’d been published. But, even his scientific theories he only published reluctantly; yet with these he mostly had no problems about heresy. The man was just not someone in favour of widening access to information.


Maynard Handley 02.01.06 at 1:43 pm

“But seriously, the fact that the Church of Rome engages in straightforward astronomy is no more weird than General Motors doling out health insurance. Or even the State of Arizona hiring philosophers”

It only counts as astronomy (or science in general) if you are willing to accept the conclusions come what may.
This hardly sounds like the vatican to me.
Historically, of course, there is that whole Galileo business.
Right now before our eyes they are going squishy on Darwin.
Their attitude to the clear scientific fact that you cannot keep increasing the human population forever seems to be to deny that exponential curves actually grow the way math says they do.

They strike me as basically no different from the Bushites — happy with science as long as it delivers what they want, and no further — ie absolutely not the people I want in charge of it.
(And excuses about how “they believed what Galileo said, they just didn’t want it to be publicly known” simply confirm my case.)


Bob B 02.01.06 at 2:29 pm

” The philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend argued that the Church supressed Galileo’s work not because they believed it was false (in fact, the opposite), but because they thought the social consequences of the theory becoming widely known would be deleterious, both in general and to their own particular social position.”

That’s a thought. Penicillin has probably helped to save the lives of some absolutely terrible people.


Peter 02.01.06 at 3:24 pm

Maynard (#49): “Their attitude to the clear scientific fact that you cannot keep increasing the human population forever seems to be to deny that exponential curves actually grow the way math says they do.”

But the Vatican does not believe the human population will keep increasing forever. They believe in the Second Coming of Christ, which will mean a sudden halt to human population growth. Thus, the Second Coming is quite consistent with current mathematics. Indeed, as Frank Tipler showed, it is even consistent with modern physics (pre-String Theory, if I recall correctly)!


Peter Erwin 02.01.06 at 4:48 pm

48: Strangely enough, most people think there’s a difference between a large, powerful organization (e.g., the Catholic Church) suppressing public discussion of an issue or argument — and persecuting those who do attempt to publicly discuss it — and individual people choosing not to share their private thoughts with others, for whatever reason. The latter, of course, is something just about all of us do at one time or another.

I’m afraid even the putative motivations (17th Century Church, Newton) don’t match. The Church’s attitude at the time wasn’t “X is true, but potentially dangerous in the wrong hands, and anyway we’re the only one who should know the truth”, which is approximately what you are saying Newton felt about his own religious speculations.

Instead, the Church wanted to suppress something it thought was false (and capable of leading people into heresy). At the same time, it was working hard to preach those religious ideas it did believe were true.


Peter 02.02.06 at 10:54 am

52: I didn’t say that the RC Church and Isaac Newton were morally equivalent. I said that the Church was not the only person or organization supressing knowledge it (or s/he) believed to be true because of the perceived ill-effects on society were this knowledge to become widely-known.


JohnLopresti 02.02.06 at 7:31 pm

KH, Likely update 2: It is believed the ruby rod components were kept by the government and not delivered as part of the VATT equipment, thereby assuring the instrument’s use would only be celestial luminance downloads, no sky rays emanated from Mt. Graham skyward; though I think there might be potential there for a light show, perhaps the jinns which you suggest might fit onto the point of a needle where the SC2 could target their neutrinonesses. However, I would anticipate, as interesting as the scatter image might be, no quantum physics equation would fit around the data to explain how spirits comprised of massless particles could deflect the SC2 irradiation beam. In sum, we are speaking of two divergent technologies here. As we know, SC2s need lots of flat land for development; ’til this very day you can hear the wails in Woodside now these several decades since that bucolic equestrian valley was invaded by the SLAC linear accelerator, and the golden hills oaks began to form a kind of danse de la morte along the hills where the new freeway courses thru, gracefully swooping up the Peninsula past Stanford’s vast arrays of radiotelescope dishes.
Still, I grant the mathematicians their realm, and astrophysicists. We may need their science sooner here on earth than we anticipated at the beginnings of this anthropogenic global warming epoch. I hope they take a lession from bloggers, though with the modernist terseness of prose: they should prescind from the convoluted strings of words fancied by early dualist philosophers such as the cleric mathematician Descartes, whose first sentence in the Discourse du la Methode concatenated a substantial chain of 500 words before arriving at its first punctuation, doubtless a mere caesura in those times, a place where the philosophe would pause to breathe and then Continue.
To CL, above: Yes, maybe starry skied KS, though if some permutated form of mottoed Lattin from South East Europe, perhaps what is aspera, instead originally was some form of aspiration or hope. KS has given us the exquisite university in Lawrence; and Sam Brownback, Senator Nelson and Sen Roberts. It was a hackneyed term, even when Comstock and Chisholm conjoined in cattle yards, and the Springfield assured buffalo would cede the southern plains and then the northern plains into IA and IL. While there are no mountains of Mt. Graham’s proportions and scale in KS, there are rivers, and there is the subsidized open space, lands yielding Flavr Savr genmod grains, soils washing out the rivers into the Gulf of MX.

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