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Rev. Christopher J. Corbally, S.J.

Vatican astronomer discusses Church’s commitment to science

Rev. Christopher J. Corbally, S.J., the president of the Vatican’s National Committee for Astronomy, discussed the history of the Vatican Observatory and its mission for the annual St. Albert the Great Lecture on Faith, Reason, and Science at Providence College. 

“It’s not such a stretch of the imagination to know that the Church does have an observatory and sort of why it does have it, and how it’s trying to respond to the current situation, both in science and in the Church,” Father Corbally said.

The Jesuit scientist delivered his talk, entitled “Imagine That: Twenty Years of an Innovative Telescope for the Vatican,” as part of the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies’ examination of “Catholic Imagination” — observing the presence of God in all creation.

“Imagination is alive and well in the Church, especially in regards to science and particularly through the Vatican Observatory, in past and future innovations,” he said.

Originally from the United Kingdom, Father Corbally earned a doctorate in astronomy at the University of Toronto in 1983, 20 years after he first entered the Society of Jesus. He became a research astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, and until last year, served as vice director of the observatory’s research group.

Father Corbally is based at what he jokingly referred to as “Vatican West” — the University of Arizona in Tucson, where the Vatican’s astronomers operate a telescope on Mount Graham. His work includes multiple star systems, activity in solar-type stars, galactic structure, and telescope technology.

It’s the newest home for Vatican astronomers in more than four centuries of history. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII formed a committee to lead the calendar reform that resulted in the Gregorian calendar used today. Since that time, popes supported astronomical research by founding observatories.

Pioneers include Rev. Angelo Secchi, an astronomer who did work in stellar spectroscopy, suns, and double suns, Father Corbally said.

After his death in 1878, the Italians took over the Vatican Observatory, which was outside the border of Vatican City. But Pope Leo XIII restored the Specola Vaticana — the old Italian word for observatory — in 1891 behind St. Peter’s Basilica so everyone might see that “the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible dedication.”

Father Corbally said the investment was “an appropriate one, because people look to the heavens and love the heavens.” It was also relatively feasible, economically, because “you don’t need that many resources, other than manpower, for an observatory.”

Pure science

Through the years, Father  Corbally said Vatican astronomers have contributed to significant scientific projects. For example, they participated in the Carte du Ciel collaboration, the first international project to map the heavens.

Working with other observatories, astronomers took pictures of a 10-degree band of the night sky. Sisters from the Congregation of the Child Mary, who helped measure the position of the stars in the images, were called “computers,” he said.

In 1935, Pope Pius XI signed a concordance with the Italian government to move the observatory to Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence outside of Rome and its light pollution, where there are now two telescopes. Ultimately, however, as people began to settle in the hills around the palace and switching on electric lights, the astronomers “actually moved – not telescopes, but people” to the University of Arizona in 1981. 

The Vatican Observatory collaborated with the university to build the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope in 1992. Although the observatory’s regular work and travel is supported by Vatican funds, this project required outside fundraising, Father Corbally said during the question-and-answer period.

“The current challenge of Pope Francis is to go to the boundaries,” he said. “That is certainly what we’re doing in astronomy — going to the boundaries in the interfaces of Church and science.

“We’ve got to do the best possible science. Having this telescope helps that.”

The St. Albert the Great Lecture is one of four lectures presented annually by the Center for Catholic and Dominican Studies through the generosity of Edward J. Quinn, Jr. ’63 and his wife, Kathleen Reilly Quinn.


—  Liz F. Kay

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