Br. Guy Consolmagno said science and faith are not mutually exclusive. Photo courtesy of Vatican Observatory

Vatican scientist's work inspired by his faith

By  Robert Adragna, Youth Speak News
  • June 17, 2016

For the budding Catholic scientist, many pundits present two exclusive and diverging paths. A person can take the path of science, reason and logic, or the path of religion, dogma and the intangible.

But to Br. Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory, these paths are complementary. He believes science and religion are not mutually exclusive. In fact, from the Catholic perspective, both are resolutely necessary to understanding the full nature of our existence.

“Science does not prove. Science describes, and our descriptions are constantly getting better,” said Consolmagno. “It’s not about proving a pile of facts. It’s not about getting the quote ‘right answer.’ It’s about leading us to a deeper understanding.”

Consolmagno said a primary misconception contributing to the “split” is the belief that science is a “big book of facts that have been proven.” However, he said that science never set out to prove the universe, but rather to model it. Facts are constantly changing as new research and ideas challenge old perceptions. 

This ongoing process of refinement should not be feared as an assault on our ability to comprehend truth, said Consolmagno. Rather, it should be embraced as humanity’s collective journey towards enlightenment.

“The so-called split is a result of incredibly lazy journalism,” said Consolmagno. “The people who have those concerns usually don’t know science or don’t know religion or, most often, don’t know both.”

Consolmagno himself definitely does not have any reservations about openly practising his work and faith together. After receiving his PhD from the University of Arizona and conducting post-doctoral research at both Harvard and the Massachussets Institute of Technology, he taught university-level physics in both the United States and Kenya. Concurrently he joined the Society of Jesus in 1989 and was ordained a brother. 

Since joining the Jesuits he has served as an astronomer at the Vatican Astronomical Observatory, conducting research on the properties and formation of asteroids, meteorites and other small bodies in the solar system while also acting as curator of the Vatican Meteorite Collection. 

Consolmagno has also done tremendous work promoting scientific literacy for the general public. He has authored several popular science books, has spoken at various events and on TV programs such as The Colbert Report and was recently awarded the Carl Sagan Medal in recognition of his efforts. 

In 2015, he was appointed by Pope Francis as the director of the Vatican Observatory. 

“Every step along the way I was driven by a desire not for self-aggrandizement… but for having my idea of fun,” said Consolmagno. “By learning things, and just knowing things. That made me happy.”

Consolmagno describes science as a “beautiful blend of insight, inspiration and the hard work of reason and data taking.” He said we need faith to have confidence in its worthwhileness and accuracy. However, the inverse is also true. Our faith also needs the empiricism and methodology of science to have confidence in its relevance and truth. 

A healthy sense of faith must be grounded in our experiences, what he refers to as “the data of the transcendent.” 

“God made the universe, and He made it logical. But He didn’t have to make it so beautiful. He didn’t have to make Maxwell’s equations so beautiful. He didn’t have to make the fundamental principles so beautiful. But He did.”

(Adragna, 17, is a Grade 12 student at Bishop Allen Academy in Toronto.)

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