Pope Builds Telescope
to Find God
The London Sunday Times
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 at all.
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 on Friday.

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