And then I wrote… in 2011 I wrote a lengthy piece for the Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, which they ran in 2012, in Italian, as "Studio delle stelle e virtù teologali. L’esperienza di un astronomo." An abbreviated version ran in L’Osservatore Romano on July 28 of that year. But I don’t think it ever appeared in its full form in English. In fact I wrote it in English and they did the translations… because it runs to nearly 6,000 words, I have split it into three parts and we’ll run it here over the next three weeks. Here’s Part I.
As a Jesuit brother at the Specola Vaticana, the astronomical observatory supported by the Vatican, I live in community with fellow Jesuits united by our common vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience… and by our work as astronomers.
The world of astronomy is a microcosm that reflects how we human beings motivate ourselves to do things that bring no obvious benefit, in terms of money or power or the other things that the world judges as benefits. (Consider the vows we all have taken.) There is no obvious profit in understanding, say, the spectra of stellar clusters. How, then, do we astronomers motivate ourselves to work together on things that none of us could do on our own? What sustains us astronomers, moment to moment, in our pursuit of knowledge? What are the underlying qualities that not only determine whether or not we are good scientists, but that make us want to be scientists in the first place?
In its essence, this question is where science meets religion. It is commonplace to talk about the “endless war between science and religion,” and one commonplace way to resolve this “war” is to say that science and religion each have their own realm of applicability: as Steven Jay Gould once put it, their own “non-overlapping magisteria.” I do science during the week, I do religion on Sunday. I don’t worry about how they mix; I don’t let them mix.
Yet those who would put up a watertight barrier between science and religion miss one very important point. Science and religion do intersect without doubt in at least one place...
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