Picture
Father Corbally, who has worked with the Vatican
Observatory in the University of Arizona since 1984.
Photo by Hayleigh Daugherty
By Hayleigh Daugherty
Staff

The average person visiting the University of Arizona probably would not guess that Jesuit priests, under the authority of the Vatican, have their observatory offices on campus. Those who have heard of the astronomers hold many misconceptions concerning the men of God studying the skies, according to Father Christopher Corbally.

“We are here to do good science for the church, not that the church has an agenda,” Corbally said. “We’re not looking for the aliens before anyone else so we can baptize them, despite headlines you will see.” 

Corbally, a Jesuit priest with his doctorate in astronomy, has been working in Arizona with the Vatican Observatory Research Group since 1984, just three years after it opened in Tucson. 

Not all claims against the Holy See’s astronomy team seem so far-fetched, however. With the popular stories in history textbooks focusing on the church’s opposition to Galileo, it’s easy to wonder if the Vatican’s astronomers allow Catholic dogma to interfere with research. Corbally insists this is as true as the search for extraterrestrial conversion.

“Science and theology go their own ways with their own methods,” Corbally said.

At the same time, faith is not completely abandoned from the Jesuit astronomers’ view of science. Science “doesn’t answer all the questions, the questions of the whole and the part,” he said. “We are very matter based, but not completely matter based, and that is what can’t be answered by chemistry or physics.” 

The Jesuits working at the university believe Christianity and astronomy work hand in hand. “A scientist who has faith finds joy not just in the discoveries but also finds joy that in sharing that discovery is sharing God’s own joy. … The religious scientist also joins in the joy of creation,” Corbally said. 

Professor Chris Impey, deputy head of the Department of Astronomy, has worked with the priests since 1986 and agrees that the notions of doctrine affecting research are completely false. 

Picture
The Vatican Observatory Research
Group’s little-known
office on the ground floor
of the Steward Observatory.
Photo by Hayleigh Daugherty
“I think people who jump to conclusions don’t know enough about what (the priests) do,” he said. “The Vatican has supported astronomy since the changing of the calendar.”  

Impey also commented on sharing research with the on-campus Jesuits, “They’re an interesting group with two hats on each. They find science and theology very harmonious.”

Commonplace assumptions are not the only thing clouding the truth about the Vatican Observatory. When the Jesuits and the University of Arizona built the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope for the Mount Graham International Observatory in 1993, controversy over the location sparked a bitter dispute between the Apache Nation and environmentalists against the Vatican’s scientists. One of the men who opposed them is Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity.

Silver, along with many supporters, argues that the observatory is on sacred Apache land, and is damaging the Mount Graham red squirrel population. In 2010 he endorsed a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Forest Service over the location of the building. 

Similar to his writings in previous years, Silver insisted in a recent interview that the Vatican Observatory researchers “lack respect and integrity when it comes to Native American culture,” and the “disregard for the Apache” is really meant to negatively affect the opposing belief system because it contradicts Catholicism.

The Jesuits responded to the many accusations similar to these in an open statement published in 1992 on their official website, vaticanobservatory.org.

“The Vatican Observatory offers no opposition to the continuance of Apache religious practices or the preservation of traditional Apache religious sites on Mt. Graham. It, too, has a profound respect for the integrity of the mountain and its environs. Contrary to erroneous information that has been supplied to the press, the Vatican Observatory finds no conflict whatsoever between the construction of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope and Apache religious practices or site preservation,” it states. 

Astronomy professor George Rieke, the deputy director of the Steward Observatory, has worked with members of the research group for more than 40 years. He disagrees with Silver. 

“It would be completely out of character to denigrate another religion. That’s not where they are,” Rieke said of his colleagues. “The problem has to do with disputes within the Apache that overflows into the observatory controversy.” 

In spite of the many controversies and misapprehensions surrounding the Vatican Observatory Research Group, the Jesuits continue on with their scientific inquiries, and are willing to share their perspective.

“It’s a good question: Why does the church have an observatory?” Corbally said. “Part of it is to show science in its own right is a part of the Christian activity. Doing science well is a part of what it means to be a good Christian.

 


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