People are often surprised to find out that the Vatican owns an observatory in Tucson, Arizona. They originally had a telescope in Rome, but the growing population made the sky too bright for astronomical observations. Jesuit astronomer Guy Consolmagno says, “?The Church, in modern times, wants to show the world that it’s not afraid of science, that it supports science, that it thinks science is a wonderful thing. Not only to reassure the scientists, but also to reassure the religious people science is a good thing. Don’t listen to people who say you have to choose one or the other.”

In Astrobiology Magazine, Henry Bortman interviews Consolmagno, who says the reason the Church supports astronomy “goes back to?the reform of the calendar, back in 1582. They hired an astronomer to work out how to make the calendar work right?We can’t impose our idea of how God did things. It’s up to us to see how the universe actually does work.”

Bortman asks him, ?Isn’t the belief that God created the universe a preconceived notion??

Consolmagno replies, “It is. And it’s a preconceived notion that in one form or another every scientist has to have?To be a scientist you have to have two fundamental assumptions?You assume that the universe makes sense, that there really is an objective reality?it’s not just chaos; there really are laws to be found.” Bortman asks, “Suppose another intelligent species is discovered. What would that do to the Church’s beliefs about God creating the universe, and Earth, and the creatures on Earth, and sending his only son?to this planet, where there is an intelligent species, perhaps one among millions?”

Consolmagno replies, “?Here are three scenarios. The most likely one: We find an intelligent civilization and there’s no way in creation we can communicate with them because they’re so alien to us. We can’t talk to dolphins now. In which case, we’ll never know.

“Second scenario: We find the intelligent civilization. We can communicate. We discover that they have the two essentials that theologians talk about for the human soul, intelligence and free will. They know who they are, they’re self-aware, and they’re able to do something about it.

“?A third scenario: We find a dozen civilizations out there, and a bunch of Jehovah’s witnesses go up and convert them all.?

Bortman: “But you left one out: They convert us. Because how do we know they don’t have an equally powerful set of beliefs?”

Consolmagno: “The only analogy we have is how different civilizations on the face of the Earth have interacted as they came in contact?There are people, when they came to the Americas, who thought that, well, we can enslave these people because they don’t have souls.”

Bortman: “And why does the Vatican fund this research?”

Consolmagno: “?They want the world to know that the Church isn’t afraid of science, that they like science, that science is great, this is our way of seeing how God created the universe, and they want to make as strong a statement as possible that truth doesn’t contradict truth, that if you have faith, then you’re not going to ever be afraid of what science is going to come up with?And the one time in history that they screwed up on this, the Galileo affair, the Church was wrong?[But] how many times has science abused the Church? How often have you heard a scientist apologize to the Church?

“?The religious fundamentalists, basically, are scared that they don’t have faith, which is why they cling so tightly to what little they’ve got. The science fundamentalists, I think some of them just want to be taken seriously as scientists and they think, well I have to show that I’ve rejected anything else? Just by walking around with this badge that says ‘Vatican Observatory,’ I’m reminding people that, yes, there is indeed a religious aspect, and indeed, an ethical aspect to science.”

Hear a new version of the story of Jesus on this week’s Dreamland, with Ahmed Osman, who says that Jesus, Joshua, and Tutankhamun were the same person.

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