Often mistakenly seen as conflicting entities, the Catholic Church is striving to build up the field of science as students from around the globe begin studies at this year’s summer session at the Vatican observatory south of Rome.
The observatory is located in Castelgandolfo, Italy, on the site of the papal summer residence, where, for the last 20 years, promising young science students have been selected for the rigorous summer program.
This year’s 25-member class was selected from over 200 applicants from around the world, and represents 19 different countries.
Father Chris Corbally, a Jesuit priest from Britain is the observatory's vice-director and dean of its international summer school. He told Reuters recently that, "Science is an important value in human life and therefore it is important to the Catholic Church."
The Church has a long history of dialogue with and support of science. In the late 1700’s in fact, the Vatican was sponsoring three different observatories where scientists were studying the skies.
By 1891, Pope Leo XIII had established an official Vatican observatory near the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. That observatory was moved south to Castelgandolfo in 1935 due to increased light pollution which made the night sky over Rome difficult to observe.
More recently, in 1996, Pope John Paul II said in a “Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences”, that “By your efforts, you will mark out the path toward solutions which will benefit all of the human community. In the domain of nature, both living and inanimate, the evolution of science and its applications gives rise to new inquiries. The Church will be better able to expand her work insofar as we understand the essential aspects of these new developments.”
He also cited his predecessor, Pope Pius XII who, in his encyclical Humani Generis (1950), “affirmed that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation, provided that we do not lose sight of certain fixed points.”
Sarah Chamberlain, 25, a Ph.D. from Australia, said in an interview with Reuters: "This place is fantastic. We have very little history in my country but here you just breathe the history.
“There are books written in 1667 by some of the people that I have only read about or have been taught about in first year physics. To be in this place is absolutely fantastic. Galileo walks here," she said.
The month long course welcomes serious students of all faiths. Says Fr. Corbally: "The whole environment of the place invites reflection. But we don't ask what their faith is, or if they have any. What we do ask is what quality of person they are, what enthusiasm they have, what is the promise of continuing in research careers in astronomy or in astrobiology."