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updated 8/19/2008 9:04:51 AM ET 2008-08-19T13:04:51

Brother Guy Consolmagno occupies a small space of heaven. A Jesuit brother and astronomer for the Vatican Observatory, he works at the observatory’s headquarters at the pope’s summer palace in Castel Gandolfo, a 45-minute train ride from Rome.

Castel Gandolfo sits on the high ground of Italy’s Lazio region, perched above the exotic, sapphire-blue volcanic Lake Albano. The view you get is magical. “This is a good place for things like an occultation, like the transit of Venus in 2004,” Consol­magno says. “We observed the comet hitting Jupiter because the first events were visible only from this part of the world.”

Below the observatory’s domed chamber are the offices that make up the rest of the Vatican Observatory. One study has bookshelves filled with hardbound journals all the way to the high ceiling. Consolmagno pulls one off a shelf and reads aloud: “Account of a new telescope by Mr. Isaac Newton.” He shows me, then smiles. “I think he has a future,” he says.

The building also houses small labs and research areas where decades-long projects — like cataloging meteorites — are occurring. While this is the official home of the Vatican Observatory, a related facility, the Vatican Observatory Research Group, is set up in the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona. There, with greater access to high-tech equipment, the Vatican is conducting detailed research on dark matter, quasars and the universe’s expansion.

“The idea that the universe is worth studying just because it’s worth studying is a religious idea,” Consolmagno says. “If you think the universe is fundamentally good and that it’s an expression of a good God, then studying how the universe works is a way of becoming intimate with the Creator. It’s a kind of worship. And that’s been a big motivation for doing any kind of science.”

As a scientist who is also a Jesuit brother, Consolmagno suggests that science poses philosophical questions that in turn spark religious inquiries.

“A hundred years ago we didn’t understand the Big Bang,” he says. “Now that we have the understanding of a universe that is big and expanding and changing, we can ask philosophical questions we would not have known to ask, like ‘What does it mean to have multiverses?’ These are wonderful questions. Science isn’t going to answer them, but science, by telling us what is there, causes us to ask these questions. It makes us go back to the seven days of creation — which is poetry, beautiful poetry, with a lesson underneath it — and say, ‘Oh, the seventh day is God resting as a way of reminding us that God doesn’t do everything.’ God built this universe but gave you and me the freedom to make choices within the universe.”

The lessons learned from the trial and condemnation of Galileo in the 1600s have guided an era of scientific caution and hesi­tancy within the Vatican. Today the Vatican’s approach to science is a complex undertaking involving nearly every facet of Church life. The Roman Curia — the Church’s governing body — includes a network of 5 pontifical academies and 11 pontifical councils, each of them charged with tasks ranging from the promotion of Christian unity to the cataloging of martyrs. To varying degrees, each of the 16 offices — and, of course, the independent Vatican Observatory — intersects with scientific issues, and they tend to rely on the efforts of one academy to provide clarity and consultation: the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Housed in a building several centuries old deep inside Vatican City, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is a surprisingly nonreligious institution as well as one of the Vatican’s least understood.

Inside the Academy of Sciences
Though it is virtually unknown among laypeople, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is an independent and remarkably influential body within the Holy See. Over the years its membership roster has read like a who’s who of 20th-century scientists (including Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and Erwin Schrödinger, to name a few), and it currently boasts more than 80 international academicians, many of them Nobel laureates and not all of them Catholic — including the playfully irreligious physicist Stephen Hawking.

Academy members are elected by the current membership. There are no religious, racial, or gender criteria. Candidates are chosen on the basis of their scientific achievements and their high moral standards. When a nomination for membership is made, the Vatican Secretariat of State is consulted in order to prevent the appointment of someone with a questionable history.

“We’re a group of people from all over the world — many religions and attitudes,” says physicist Charles Hard Townes, a Nobel laureate and an inventor of the laser. “It is essential for scientists to participate in this and try to help the Catholic Church, advise them on their policies. Many civilizations in the world are not directly affected by science and technology decision making, but they are affected by mandates and decisions of the Catholic Church.”

Maxine Singer, a leader in the field of human genetics, had praise for the academy’s work even before she became a member. “I went to a study week on genetics [in the early 1980s] and listened to a discussion about new reproductive techniques that were just beginning,” she says. “It was fascinating to be at the Vatican talking about such things when the newspapers and media would have you believe that the Vatican wouldn’t discuss them.”

The Academy of Sciences’ roots reach nearly to the Renaissance. In 1603 Prince Federico Cesi, a botanist, founded the Accademia dei Lincei, or the Academy of Lynxes, named because its members — renowned Italian scholars like Galileo and Fabio Colonna — needed eyes as sharp as lynxes’ in order to pursue scientific discovery.

The Accademia slowly dissolved, only to reconstitute again in 1745, then vanish and reappear once more in 1795 under the guidance of Padre Feliciano Scarpellini, who brought together a diverse collection of scientists from the Papal States (a large Church-ruled territory in central Italy). After more organizational hiccups caused by political unrest, in 1870 — following Italy’s unification — the group morphed into two separate bodies: the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and what would become the Vatican Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which took its current form in 1936.

Today the academy’s mandate involves promoting the progress of mathematical, physical, and natural sciences and participating in the study of related epistemological questions and issues. The academy convenes plenary sessions in which its members offer presentations addressing a certain theme. Held every two years, the meetings highlight the most recent advances in the sciences. The next session is slated for October.

Although the academy’s mission seems as benign as that of any other scientific body, its presence within the Vatican invites controversy. During the early 1990s, at a time of alarm about population problems, the academy issued a report saying that there was an “unavoidable need to contain births globally,” a position that supposedly infuriated Pope John Paul II.

A pope, more than anyone else, knows the exact reason for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In 1992 John Paul II told the members that “the purpose of your academy is precisely to discern and to make known, in the present state of science and within its proper limits, what can be regarded as an acquired truth or at least as enjoying such a degree of probability that it would be imprudent and unreasonable to reject it.” In the pope’s eyes, the academy is an instrument that teases scientific fact from fiction.

The current relationship between the pope and the academy suggests that scientific issues have achieved an unprecedented level of importance within the Church. The Vatican has recently taken a firm stand on a range of science-related issues. In 2007 Vatican officials weighed in on end-of-life concerns, stating that there was a moral obligation to sustain the life of a person in a vegetative state, even if there was no hope for recovery. The position opposes the wishes of those whose advance directives request termination of hydration and nutrition if they enter such a state. And while the Vatican supports organ transplants, in 2004 the vice president of its Pontifical Academy for Life told Reuters that the cloning of human embryos is “a repeat of what the Nazis did in the concentration camps.”

Catholicism and controversy
Since 1993 Italian physicist Nicola Cabibbo has presided over the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Though not a clergy­man, he has been weathering countless criticisms of the Church’s handling of science issues. Still he remains resolute and disarmingly pragmatic in his views on science and religion.

When asked if he thought the scientific understanding of life’s beginnings demanded a belief in God, Cabibbo turned heads. “I would say no,” he told a journalist at the National Catholic Reporter, adding, however, that “science is incapable of supplying answers to ultimate questions about why things exist and what their purpose is.” Cabibbo’s statements reflect the Church’s ongoing effort to reconcile science and religion, a topic that extends far beyond the walls of the Vatican.

These days it’s practically impossible to strike up a conversation with anyone in the Vatican’s science programs without invoking the work of the outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, a prominent evolutionary theorist, wrote the book “The God Delusion,” which became an international best seller.

“What you find in his book is a caricature of my religion,” says Monsignor Melchor Sánchez de Toca, undersecretary of the Academy of Sciences’ sister organization, the Pontifical Council for Culture.

“He has an excellent reputation as a scientist, but he isn’t a theologian,” Consolmagno says.

“We call [Dawkins’s stance] sci­entism, and there is reference to it in the encyclical,” says Father Rafael Pascual, dean of philosophy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome.

“Scientism,” Dawkins tells me later, “is the pejorative word sometimes used for the view that science can explain everything and kind of arrogates to itself the privilege of explaining everything. Science cannot tell you what is right and wrong. When it comes to really interesting questions, like ‘Where did the laws of physics come from?’ or ‘How did the universe arrive in the first place?’ I genuinely don’t know whether science will answer those deep and at present mysterious questions; I am confident that if science can’t answer them, nothing else can. But it may be that nothing will ever answer them.”

Dawkins expresses skepticism at the Church’s mission to build a bridge between science and theology with the use of philosophy. “There is nothing to build a bridge to,” he says. “Theology is a complete and utter non­subject.” At one point in my talk with Dawkins, Father George Coyne, the well-respected retired head of the Vatican Observatory (and, as such, a former member of the Academy of Sciences), becomes the subject of conversation.

“I met him a few weeks ago and liked him very much,” Dawkins says. “And he said to me that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever to believe in God, and so I said, ‘Why do you believe in God?’ and he said: ‘It’s quite simple. I was brought up Catholic.’ When I think about good scientists — and some are devoutly religious and many of them are Catholic, Jesuit brothers and priests, for instance — I can never make out whether they are compartmentalizing their minds. Sometimes if you press them, it turns out that what they believe is something very different from what it says in the Creed. It turns out that all they really believe is that there is some deeply mysterious unknown at the root of the universe.”

Dawkins’s comments stuck with me. In the many interviews I had with priests, each expressed a sophisticated theology that seemed far more abstract than what you might find occupying the mind of an average believer. Is belief in a deeply mysterious unknown root of the universe such a bad thing for science, even if it is perceived through the framework of Christian concepts and imagery?

“I did not tell Richard Dawkins that there was no reason to believe in God,” says Coyne, who counts Dawkins a friend. “I said reasons are not adequate. Faith is not irrational, it is arational; it goes beyond reason. It doesn’t contradict reason. So my take is precisely that faith, to me, is a gift from God. I didn’t reason to it, I didn’t merit it — it was given to me as a gift through my family and my teachers.... My science helps to enrich that gift from God, because I see in his creation what a marvelous and loving god he is. For instance, by making the universe an evolutionary universe — he didn’t make it a ready-made, like a washing machine or a car — he made it a universe that has in it a participation of creativity. Dawkins’s real question to me should be, ‘How come you have the gift of faith and I don’t?’ And that’s an embarrassment for me. The only thing I can say is that either you have it and don’t know it, or God works with each of us differently, and God does not deny that gift to anybody. I firmly believe that.”

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive

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