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Pope's call to space station highlights ties between church and science

Religion and science spoke to one another this week when Pope Francis made a video call to six astronauts aboard the International Space Station. Bob McDonald, host CBC's Quirks & Quarks, explores the history of the Catholic Church's relationship with astronomy.

The Vatican has a long history of astronomical observations since Galileo was put on trial in 1633

Pope Francis arrives during his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Wednesday. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Pope Francis made a video call to six astronauts aboard the International Space Station on Thursday. It's the second time a pontiff has communicated with the ISS. This connection between church and science has come a long way since the embarrassing arrest of Galileo more than 400 years ago.

The Vatican has been operating telescopes since 1582, when the Gregorian Tower, located in the Vatican, was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII to reform what is now the Gregorian Calendar. It was later known as the Vatican Observatory. Since then, the Vatican has built telescopes in Rome, as well as south of the city at Castel Gandolfo, and in Arizona, where the 1.8-metre Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope has been operating since 1993. 

The astronomical community uses the modern instrument to investigate near-Earth asteroids, exobiology, extrasolar planets, stellar evolution and cosmology, contributing data for scientific papers.

Pope Francis connects to the crew aboard the International Space Station from the Vatican on Thursday. He peppered its residents with questions about the future of the planet and the environmental risks it faced. (L'Osservatore Romano/Associated Press)

The Vatican's long history of astronomical observations is in sharp contrast to the Inquisition that put Galileo on trial in 1633 for teaching that the Earth moved around the sun. At that time, the church believed that the Earth, and in fact humanity, was at the centre of everything, and back then, if you disagreed with the church it was considered an act of heresy, punishable by death.

Galileo believed in the heliocentric solar system after he pointed his telescope at the planet Jupiter for many nights in a row, spotting four moons, now known as the Galilean moons, orbiting the planet in a very orderly manner. This was empirical evidence that small objects orbit around larger ones, so it made sense that smaller planets would go around a larger sun.

It also supported the work of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who first proposed a sun-centred model, and who ironically, was once an administrative and medical canon in the church.

An interior view of the Vatican's modern telescope in southern Arizona. (Vatican Observatory Foundation/YouTube)

Fortunately for Galileo, his reputation worked in his favour, resulting in house arrest rather than death for his beliefs. He never actually confessed that he was wrong. Instead, he declared that the sun-centred concept was his favoured hypothesis. He continued to teach his ideas to students who came to visit him at his home in Florence for the rest of his life.

The priests who run the Vatican Observatory today are not trying to prove the existence of God by searching the heavens. On the contrary, they want to keep the church on the cutting edge of scientific knowledge, and view astronomy as another way of appreciating God's creation. In other words, they do not see a conflict between science and religion. Rather, they see those as two different ways of understanding the mysteries of the universe.

This is an important distinction from other organizations that take the Bible literally, and claim that the scientific evidence for evolution or Big Bang cosmology is wrong.

Pope Francis's call to space reflects a belief in science and respect for the environment.

"People cannot come up here and see the indescribable beauty of our Earth and not be touched in their souls," space station commander Randy Bresnik told the Pope, adding, "There's no borders, there's no conflict. It's just peaceful."

In part of his response, the Pope told Bresnik, "It is a very fragile thing. The atmosphere is thin, so capable of doing harm, of destroying itself, and you have gone to look at it from the eyes of God."

Whether or not you believe the universe was created by God, it is important to believe in the science that tries to understand how it works.

About the Author

Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.