- THE Pope has asked a team of top astronomers
to try to find "the fingerprints of God" amid the chaos of the
cosmos, writes Jonathan Leake.
- The Vatican is jointly building one of
the most powerful astronomical observatories on Earth to help search for
other planets and star systems capable of supporting life.
- The observatory, at Mount Graham in Arizona,
will have two telescopes designed for astronomical survey work with the
ability to pick out the clouds of dust and gas that can give rise to planetary
systems. They may also be able to pinpoint those stars and planets on which
conditions could be suitable for life to develop.
- In what amounts to the most ambitious
astronomical project in the Catholic church's history, the Vatican and
its Jesuit partners will invest at least £3m in a powerful infrared
telescope to search space in tandem with a £2m optical system now
undergoing final tests.
- The observatory will be used by the astronomers
from the Vatican observatory, based near Rome, whose original team of 10
scientists will grow to more than 20 as the facility comes into operation.
The Jesuits persuaded the Pope to part with the money after convincing
him that the papal observatory, established in the last century, has been
rendered useless by atmospheric pollution.
- Father George Coyne, the director of
the observatory, said its main work would be pure science, albeit with
a theological bias. "The incarnation of Christ applies to all human
activity, including astronomy," he said.
- For the Vatican, maintaining a team of
astronomers is seen as vital to prevent repeats of its past battles with
scientists. It persecuted early astronomers such as Copernicus and Galileo,
who challenged the church's vision of a universe in which the sun and planets
rotated around the Earth.
- The project does, however, hold some
dangers for Christianity. One of the greatest would be the discovery of
alien life forms, especially if they were intelligent. The Catholic church
would have huge problems deciding if Jesus's crucifixion, which was meant
to redeem mankind from original sin, also applied to aliens. One way around
that problem would be to convert aliens to Catholicism, an idea already
considered by the Pope's astronomers.
- Father Chris Corbally, an English Jesuit
who is the observatory's deputy director, said: "If civilisation were
to be found on other planets and if it were feasible to communicate, then
we would want to send missionaries to save them, just as we did in the
past when new lands were discovered."
- Such problems may be a long way off,
but other equally powerful conflicts between Christianity and science are
emerging. One centres on recent theories that the universe has no end or
beginning, which would take away the need for a God to have created it
- The Pope's astronomers have considered
such questions and have developed a theory of "speculative theology"
which allows the church huge flexibility in the way it responds to new
discoveries. Under the theory, newly discovered phenomena are seen as "the
fingerprints of God" and their complexity and subtlety simply reinforce
God's omnipotence. It means that anything discovered by the Pope's astronomers
can be used to reinforce rather than undermine faith. Some believe the
Vatican has lost its way. David Thompson, an expert in modern church history
at Cambridge University, said: "It is biology that holds the real
challenges, especially the idea that our behaviour is predetermined by
our genes, and that means sinning is not possible. Without sin, Christianity
falls apart completely, irrespective of what lies in the heavens."
- °British astronomers believe they
have found planetary systems around four of the nearest stars to Earth.
The discovery was announced at the Royal Astronomical Society in London