Putting his faith in study of astronomy

For more than a century, a little-known group of Catholic clergy has turned its attention to the heavens.

But the vocation involves more than faith and prayer. The priests of the Vatican Observatory conduct cutting-edge research in physics and astronomy at facilities on a hilltop outside Rome and on a mountain in Arizona.


"We try and understand nature as it's given to us," said the Rev. George V. Coyne, a Baltimore native who directed the observatory for 28 years.

Coyne, now 74 and retired from that post, was honored for his contributions to astronomy yesterday by his alma mater, Towson's Loyola Blakefield Jesuit School.


Although the Roman Catholic Church once branded Galileo a heretic for suggesting that the Earth orbits the sun -- a conflict of ideas that remains the stuff of legend -- Coyne said the church has long since embraced astronomy and given its practitioners a serious mission.

"It's certainly not to go out and convert those atheistic scientists and not to baptize aliens," he said.

In fact, the observatory's roots lie in the effort of Pope Gregory XIII to gather the best scientists available, including Jesuits from the Roman College, to reform the calendar in 1582.

"Essentially, it started a tradition," Coyne said -- one that outlasted the scientists' original mission. "To put it facetiously, these people were doing a good job. Keep giving them spaghetti and wine and keep them working."

Over time, the priest-astronomers worked at three different observatories in the Vatican. But their role wasn't formally recognized until 1891, when the church was battling an anti-clerical political atmosphere driven by accusations that it was anti-intellectual, Coyne said.

That's when Pope Leo XIII issued a motu proprio -- a letter officially establishing the Specola Vaticana, or Vatican Observatory -- a visible symbol of church support for intellectual pursuits.

"Today we don't preach that," Coyne said of the observatory's priests. "We just do our work."

The center, entrusted to the Jesuits since 1906, sends a report of its activities to the Vatican every year.


After his official retirement as director, Coyne is taking a sabbatical, but plans to return to the observatory in Tucson, Ariz., in September to continue studying the geometry of binary stars and to lead the observatory foundation.

It's a long way from the streets of Canton, where his family -- including eight brothers and sisters -- attended St. Brigid's parish.

Under the tutelage of the nuns there, he earned a scholarship to Loyola and sold newspapers and carried golf clubs to make ends meet.

When his family moved to the Walbrook section of West Baltimore, he recalled, "I thumbed my way past Pimlico racetrack" to get to a bus in Mount Washington that took him the rest of the way to Loyola Blakefield.

A member of Loyola's class of 1951, Coyne jokes that he joined the Society of Jesus at the age of 18 because "I didn't know any better." While he was studying classics during his first two years as a novice in Wernersville, Pa., Coyne discovered astronomy.

His Greek instructor there, the Rev. Hayne Martin, had a contagious interest in art, dance and science -- particularly astronomy. "He'd be so passionate about it, he'd be dancing to the Greek odes," Coyne said.


Martin would often interrupt his lectures with explanations of astronomical phenomena such as the vernal equinox, illustrating them with elaborate diagrams on the chalkboard.

He also recognized Coyne's appetite for astronomy -- but the rules forbade novices from studying anything but classics for their first two years. So the priest lent Coyne a local library card so he could check out astronomy books on the sly and read them under the covers (with a flashlight Martin also provided).

"It whetted my appetite, got me started, all due to this great professor," Coyne said.

His superiors sent him to Fordham University in New York to study mathematics, then groomed him to teach astronomy at Georgetown University. But the department there had closed by the time he was ordained in 1965, so Coyne headed west to map the surface of the moon with other researchers at the University of Arizona. He became a professor there and joined the staff of the Vatican Observatory in 1969.

When the director of the Vatican Observatory in Italy died suddenly in 1978, Pope John Paul I appointed Coyne to the position -- one of the few actions the pope completed before his own sudden death.

By that time, the Vatican Observatory had moved to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence southeast of Rome, to escape light pollution in the city proper. But Coyne expanded operations by opening a research center in the clearer air at the University of Arizona. More than a decade later, the group built the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope, an optical infrared instrument on Mount Graham, about 120 miles east of Tucson in the Pinaleno Mountains.


Only once, by his account, did Coyne attempt to leave the planet entirely. While he was studying theology in the early 1960s, NASA put out a call for scientists to enter the astronaut program for the first time. "I thought, 'Jesus, this would be fascinating,'" Coyne said.

Having studied the chemical composition of the moon for his doctorate at Georgetown University, Coyne wrote to his provincial leader to ask permission. His response: although Coyne had the credentials, "If I let you, everyone will want to do it."

Eventually his superior relented and Coyne made it past NASA's first cut. But there was a problem he couldn't overcome. "I flunked out after a short time because of eyesight," he said.

Today, Coyne says, he and his fellow priests conduct their research like other scientists, regardless of their religious convictions. "Science, to my estimation, is completely neutral with respect to religious belief," Coyne said. "It doesn't necessarily lead us to God. It doesn't take us away from God.

"Science's very methodology is to seek for natural explanations of natural events, or material explanations for material happenings," he said.

That puts God and religious faith outside the realm of science, he said. "The real value of science has been to hold rigidly to that, so we don't get confused, frankly, by all of the other influences upon us. We try and understand nature as it's given to us."


Unlike fundamentalist Protestant denominations that believe in a literal interpretation of the Scriptures and their description of Creation, the Catholic Church has been more comfortable with the notion of a universe that was created billions of years ago. Still, there are tensions over the theory of evolution and other scientific concepts.

"This whole relationship between science and religion, it has to be a very careful one," Coyne said. "You can sin, so to speak, on both extremes."

At one end of the spectrum, he said, one can deny the existence of God and claim that the universe exists entirely by chance. At the other, one can rely on religious beliefs and deny the validity of scientific observations.

At one extreme, he said, was the church's treatment of Galileo, who was imprisoned for heresy for declaring that the Earth revolved around the sun during the 17th century.

On a personal level, Coyne said he his belief in God doesn't come from being a scientist, although his science says a great deal about his beliefs.

"My knowledge says that the universe -- God did not make it like a washing machine or a car, with lots of spare parts. He made a universe that has a dynamism to it, through evolution.


"God did not predetermine everything. He kind of let it be. ... He let the universe develop its own creativity, its own dynamism."

According to some news reports, Pope Benedict XVI forced Coyne's retirement from the observatory last summer because of the priest's public comments in support of evolution.

The subject came up again last week, with the release of a papal statement that evolution cannot be proved in the laboratory because it cannot be replicated.

Coyne denied he had been forced out of his job, calling the idea "imaginative journalism" in an e-mail on the observatory Web site.

"It's been over a period of years, 16 years maybe, that I've been offering my resignation to my superiors," the priest said this week. "I've been telling them that I'm delighted with my job but you need young blood, especially in scientific circles."

Coyne said he submitted his resignation after serving for eight years, then again at eight-year intervals until it was finally accepted last year.


"Thus far, from everything I've heard Pope Benedict say, I see no conflict between what they think and what I say," Coyne said.

Having spent his entire career as a scientist, Coyne said he asked for a working sabbatical. He got his wish -- spending the year as an associate pastor at St. Raphael the Archangel, a large parish in Raleigh, N.C.

Coyne said his background as an astronomer came in handy when he visited St. Raphael's three schools. "They were all worried about Pluto," the priest said, because it had been excised from the list of planets by the astronomical community.

He said he assured them that the former planet had actually received an upgrade. "He's the head of a whole group of Plutoids," Coyne said. "It's a change in name but he's been promoted, really."

For audio of the Rev. George V. Coyne discussing the intersection of science and theology, go to


Devotion to science and the cloth// Somefamous priests scientists in history

Roger Bacon (circa 1220-1292) The English Franciscan was a philosopher known for his promotion of experimental science. He was also the first European to lay out the process for making gunpowder.

Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) The Augustine monk from Austria is credited with recognizing heritable traits among pea plants in his monastery garden ? forming the foundation for genetics.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) This French Jesuit, a paleontologist involved in the discovery of the skull of the Peking Man in 1929, is also known for philosophical writings linking modern science and theology.

Georges-Henri Lemaitre (1894-1966) The Belgian priest and cosmologist first proposed the big bang theory ? the notion that the universe arose from the explosion of a small ?super-atom.?

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica