To this Vatican astrophysicist, science is worship

Among the world’s notable dumb moves, prosecuting Galileo remains one of history’s dumbest.

The Catholic Church in the 1630s put the elderly astronomer under house arrest for saying the Earth revolves around the sun.

Stories like that can make for great conversations, says the Rev. Chris Corbally, one of the Vatican’s leading scientists in astrophysics.

Corbally plans to have a conversation about God, the church and science in August in Atchison before perhaps thousands of people, during the biggest solar eclipse this country has seen in this century. His tentative title: “Taking Science Seriously, and Talking About God.”

“It’s a complicated story, isn’t it?” he said of Galileo in a recent telephone interview. “There is a massive misunderstanding, in the church’s point of view, about what science is about – and with science, there’s perhaps a misunderstanding from not necessarily appreciating the sensitivities of the church at the time.”

Corbally is a Catholic Jesuit priest that Galileo would have probably loved to meet. Among other things, Corbally has taught astrophysics at the University of Arizona and studies stars by looking at the spectrum of electromagnetic radiation coming from them.

The church has spent hundreds of years, including before Galileo, defending and supporting science, he said. Corbally himself has contributed – the Vatican has the Vatican Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., and Corbally, 71, has served as a research astronomer and administrator there for many years.

The church since Galileo has contributed enthusiastically to some of the bigger scientific studies in history, he said. The Catholic monk Gregor Mendel made groundbreaking discoveries about genetics. Father George Lemeitre, astronomer and physicist, was the first to propose that the universe is expanding – and was the first scientist to propose ideas that came to be known as the Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe.

“What I love to talk about, regarding the church and science, is that history has sometimes portrayed them as artificially coming into conflict with each other,” Corbally said. “But in fact, in history, it’s almost always been a dialogue. The church and science both seek an approach to truth. And in the end, the truth is one, for both of them. And the truth is God.”

The Aug. 21 eclipse is attracting huge interest nationally, because the eclipse’s “path of totality” as astronomers call it, will put hundreds of U.S. cities, including Atchison, Hiawatha and other Kansas towns, into the dim light of a total eclipse for about two and a half minutes.

Corbally is coming to Atchison for the eclipse because Benedictine College, a Catholic school with 2,000 students, has a strong astronomy program.

Ryan Maderak, an astronomy teacher there, said the school recently received support from donors that will allow the school to build a new observatory in time for the Aug. 21 eclipse. Maderak plans a big eclipse gathering. He’s invited the public to come to Benedictine’s football stadium – and he invited Corbally, a fellow astronomer, to liven things up with a talk about the church’s history with science.

The church doesn’t come off well in the old Galileo story. But overlooked in the old story are at least three important things, Corbally says.

▪ The church changed its mind. Gradually, but the church changed.

▪ The church supported science so instinctively throughout its history that it now supports what to some people are controversial ideas, not only the Big Bang Theory but the theory of evolution – and that human activity might be causing the Earth to warm. And it hasn’t been only the Vatican scientists who have taught these things. Pope John Paul II himself said evolution is no longer just a hypothesis but an established scientific fact. Pope Francis has urged people to be better stewards of the Earth.

▪ Most instructively of all, Corbally said: Galileo never lost his faith in God. Or his devotion to the Catholic Church.

“Science is a perfect fit with my faith,” said Corbally, 71. He grew up in England, in a part of Lancashire where people could still easily see the stars.

“For anyone who has faith, to look into the mysteries of the universe and to see the different personalities of the stars, it’s a way to join with the creator, to join with the creator’s joy.”

It’s a form of worship, he said.

“And it’s fun.”

Roy Wenzl: 316-268-6219, @roywenzl

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