The ‘pope’s astronomer’ finds harmony between science and dogma

NEW YORK – He’s spent most of his life studying galaxies far, far away – while also spreading the word on how religion and science aren’t mutually exclusive.

Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit religious brother with an MIT degree, has worked as “the pope’s astronomer” as director of the Vatican Observatory who has a profound love for studying space, reading and watching science-fiction as well as Jesus and the Gospels. Embraced by both the scientific and the religious communities, Consolmagno, a Detroit native, is also in the business of shattering myths about the compatibility between science and religion.

“Religion isn’t so cut and dry. If you think you have it all figured out, your religion is dead.”  
— Guy Consolmagno, Director of the Vatican Observatory

“Neither science or faith is the goal,” he said. “Truth is the goal.”

The 65-year-old Consolmagno, a self-proclaimed “nerd” who has worked for decades as a planetary scientist, has had an asteroid named after him, scoured Antarctica for meteorites and written eight books on space and theology. His most-recent book, Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial published in 2014, came from a question a reporter once asked him while on a trip to England.  

“Science isn’t the facts, it’s the conversation,” Consolmagno said Tuesday night during an appearance at The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in New York for an event called “Jesuits and Jedi: Science and Spirituality in the Age of Star Wars.”

The two-hour event was primarily aimed at clearing up misconceptions about the relationship between science and religion as well as serving as a celebration of science-fiction books and movies such as Star Wars. The talk was interspersed with short clips from Star Wars as well as Star Trek: The Next Generation to illustrate issues involving morality and ethics.    

“Religion isn’t so cut and dry,” he added. “If you think you have it all figured out, your religion is dead.”  

Dr. Charles Camosy, associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University who also appeared on the panel, said many people often accuse believers of being anti-science.

“You’re religious – you’re not rational,” said Camosy, referring to what many people incorrectly say about Christians and religious people of other faiths.

“Science-fiction isn’t about the future but the time it was written in. A galaxy far, far away? No, American politics of the 1970s.”  
— Guy Consolmagno

Consolmagno, who became a Jesuit in 1989, is a perfect example of how reason and faith can come together. In 2015, he was named by Pope Francis to director of the Vatican Observatory, an organization headquartered at the pope’s summer residence in Castel Gandolfo that currently operates a telescope in Arizona. The organization employs about a dozen astronomers who study asteroids, meteorites and cosmology.

Asked about the pontiff and his appointing him to the position, Consolmagno joked: “He’s sort of our Yoda.”  

The Catholic Church has had a long-standing interest in astronomy. In 1891, Pope Leo XIII established the Vatican Observatory and placed it on a hillside behind the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. By the 1930s, the growing glow of Rome made it nearly impossible to conduct interstellar observations. As a result, the facility was moved nearly 20 miles outside the city at Castel Gandolfo. In 1961, the same problem forced a move to Tucson, Arizona.  

While Consolmagno marries faith and science, he also professes a love for science-fiction. He and Camosy agreed that Star Wars Episode VI: A New Hope, released in 1977, featured an anti-cynical hero in Luke Skywalker in the years following President Richard Nixon’s resignation amid the Watergate scandal.

“Science-fiction isn’t about the future,” Consolmagno said, “but the time it was written in. A galaxy far, far away? No, American politics of the 1970s.”  

Consolmagno said questions surrounding artificial intelligence and computer technology are areas science-fiction have tackled for decades, allowing people to explore the ethical issues surrounding their use in our everyday lives.

“Intelligence, knowledge and information is so slippery a thing to define,” he said. “The great thing about science-fiction is that you get to ask the question.”