What the Pope’s Astronomer Thinks

Over at Physics and Physicists, ZapperZ notes a fairly useless interview with Guy Consolmagno, and suggests some alternative questions:

1. How old do you estimate the universe to be based not only on your observation, but also the consensus among astronomers? Would this be contrary to the biblical interpretation on the age of the universe? What about the Young Earth’s interpretation of the age of the universe?

2. What is your view of the treatment received by Galileo by the church? {Oh c’mon, you knew that one was coming, didn’t you?}

These would be better questions than what was asked in the interview, but not for the cheap “gotcha” reasons that seem to be behind them. ZapperZ is falling into one of the classic blunders, somewhat down the list from “never get involved in a land war in Asia,” namely “don’t mistake Catholics for Protestants.”

Young-Earth Creationism is a Protestant heresy. In fact, it’s mostly an American Protestant heresy. It is not the official doctrine of the Catholic church, and has not been the official doctrine of the Catholic church for a century or more. (I don’t believe that Biblical literalism of the wacky American fundamentalist sort has ever been official Catholic doctrine, though I wouldn’t stake all that much on it.) The Big Bang theory in particular, which is name-checked in a later question, was developed in large part thanks to the work of a Belgian priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaître.

The official doctrine of the Catholic Church is perfectly compatible with a metaphorical reading of Genesis (as, to be fair, are the official doctrines of most mainline Protestant dominations), which in turn means that Brother Guy would have no problem or hesitation in answering that the Universe is 14-ish billion years old, as determined from astronomical observations. I can say this with some confidence having hosted him when he visited Union about a year ago, and he said more or less what I said above.

As for Galileo, as I wrote last year:

[S]omebody did ask Guy about Galileo at one of his talks. His answer was basically that the Church gets bad press on this for the wrong reasons. The real story of Galileo’s trial, he said, is all about politics and the Thirty Years’ War. The Church doesn’t end up looking any better, but they look like idiots for a different set of reasons than are generally assumed.

I do sort of wish the Detroit Free Press had asked those questions, just because it would be nice to have yet another source to point to as evidence that not all Christian denominations are run by frothing lunatics. The answers wouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who knows anything about the Catholic church, but it’s always good to remind people, in the same way that it’s worth patiently explaining yet again that the Large Hadron Collider is not going to create a black hole that will swallow the Earth.

The only question on the list that I don’t know the answer to is the third:

3. If there are other life forms in the universe, do you think that they would have the same set of beliefs? I mean, if there is only one god, shouldn’t they also had the same revelation? Does the bible predict their existence?

Actually, I kind of doubt that the Church would have an official position on this matter. As Brother Guy is an avid fan of science fiction as well as a Jesuit brother, though, he’s most likely given the idea some thought. Next time I run into him at a convention, I’ll try to remember to ask.

Comments

  1. #1 Paul Murray
    October 11, 2009

    “I kind of doubt that the Church would have an official position on this matter”

    I belive Augustine or Aquinas or someone was once asked about the spiritual status of centaurs and other demi-humans. He replied that it might be best to wait until we were certain that there were such things. A fine answer.

  2. #2 KKairos
    October 11, 2009

    “(I don’t believe that Biblical literalism of the wacky American fundamentalist sort has ever been official Catholic doctrine, though I wouldn’t stake all that much on it.)”

    You can pretty much stake all that much on it. At least since Augustine, and even earlier-on, Origen (though I prefer to name Augustine for purposes of his less-disputable orthodoxy), if not before, Christian theologians have been suggesting that Genesis need not be interpreted as a historical text proper. Obviously there’s a certain theological necessity to the basic historicity of an act of creation of the world, and some of the moral truths noted in the Creation accounts.

    But at the very least it seems like it would be very fair to say that the Catholic Church and even the early Christian church never married itself to a literal, seven-day creation or even an account that must absolutely resemble the Genesis account.

    The general position of the Catholic Church on the ‘is the Bible a historical document?’ question, as described to me by a good Catholic friend who’s also a solid Catholic theologian, is basically that texts are generally taken literally unless there is some good reason for them not to be.

  3. #3 John Novak
    October 11, 2009

    I can’t imagine a self-respecting Jesuit or Dominican scholar, (and really, just about all Jesuits and Dominicans are scholars) wanting to take an official position on that last one.

    I think the Church’s general instinct would be to not open the door to moral relativism by answering that aliens would have different beliefs. Which is to say, the instinct would be to answer, “Of course they have the same beliefs.” So I conjecture.

    But the more academic Catholic orders have a long institutional memory of seeing those arrogant, quasi-political answers turn out to be embarrassingly wrong in the long run.

  4. #4 Brad
    October 12, 2009

    For the record, the last time I heard a Catholic priest give the age of the universe, during mass, he said “13.7 billion years old”. Apparently it is official Catholic dogma that Ho=70, either that or the priest was reporting what he read in a popular science article.

  5. #5 miller
    October 12, 2009

    Note that though the official position of the Catholic church is pro-evolution, there are some conservative factions which still antagonize evolution anyways. Just like there are factions who still think Vatican II was a mistake (*sigh*).

  6. #6 TomS
    October 12, 2009

    I came across an example from an early Christian writing, the Epistle of Barnabas (1st or 2nd century) which did not take the 6 days of creation as literal, 24-hour days:

    Barnabas 15:4
    “Give heed, children, what this meaneth; He ended in six days. He
    meaneth this, that in six thousand years the Lord shall bring all
    things to an end; for the day with Him signifyeth a thousand years;
    and this He himself beareth me witness, saying; Behold, the day of
    the Lord shall be as a thousand years. Therefore, children, in six
    days, that is in six thousand years, everything shall come to an end.”

    http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/barnabas-lightfoot.html

  7. #7 Ponderingfool
    October 12, 2009

    A better question would be how the Catholic Church reconciles Adam and Eve with evolution and biology in general. My understanding is the Church views Adam as a single individual from whom Eve was created from and that we all descended from their coupling (monogenism). Monogenism according to Pope Pius XII being essential to the idea of original sin. Biology though favors polygenism (population of humans from whom we have descended from).

    I would have also asked him what rights the tumor has in cases of fetus in feto. That gets at the heart of a larger question what makes a human being. When does a mass of tissue in one individual become an individual in its own right. Biology can be messy.

  8. #8 ZapperZ
    October 12, 2009

    You will note that in reply to one of the comments in that blog entry, I asked those questions not with the aim towards Catholics, but rather as issues that are associated with Christianity in general. Catholics have been less “rabid” in this evolution/cosmology debate than some others, but still, it affects the whole of Christianity, I would think, if some large portion of the believers actually bastardize that belief. I want the Catholic church’s astronomer’s official opinion on that matter because I can use that to show those who try to counter the scientific consensus that even within their own religion, there’s dissenting view.

    When physicists disagree, we work it out among ourselves till we reach a consensus. We don’t, say, go to a rabbi to sort out what is essentially a physics disagreement. So if the Catholic Church disagrees with, say, the view on the origin of the universe with the Baptist, shouldn’t they talk amongst themselves and work it out before one of them tries to challenge the scientific aspect of it? They are reading from the SAME book, aren’t they?

    Zz.

  9. #9 Josh S.
    October 12, 2009

    Zapper Z: As a protestant, I can tell you that, yes, we are reading from the same book, but if reconciling interpretations of Scriture were as easy as talking amongst ourselves, there wouldn’t BE any Protestants (it derives from the word “Protest” as in protesting against the Catholic church, remember?). While I think Christians should view it as an offense to God and an impediment to our witness to the world that we can’t all get on the same page, the truth is that we probably never will. We’ve been trying to for 1,000 years now, and so far, nada. And more importantly in this context, the pope and his posse have no more obligation to consider themselves responsible for what a Protestant young-earth creationist believes than they have an obligation to hold themselves responsible for what I believe regarding transubstantiation.

    I think your example using physicists is a little misleading. After all, there are issues on which physicists, biologists, etc have NOT been able to come to consensus. Should Richard Dawkins feel a sense of obligation to get on the same page as Michael Behe (note that I’m not saying Behe’s views are as mainstream among biologists as young-earth creationist views are among Protestants, obviously)? A more mainstream example might be human anthropology. It’s been a while since I took physical anthro, but last time I checked, all that is necessary to start a fist-fight among anthropologists is to start asking them to list off the various classifications of pre-human primates.

  10. #10 Josh S.
    October 12, 2009

    One more thing I forgot to add. The other reason the example isn’t great is because of the relative population sizes involved. I don’t care to guess at the number of physicists in the world, but it is definitely far less than the 2 billion plus Christians. The only “requirement” to call oneself a Christian is a profession of faith in Christ, whereas physicists have to undergo a certain level of professional training and evaluation. Therefore the community of physicists can remain cohesive due to size and entry requirements. It’s a lot harder to keep an Italian PhD in astronomy on the same page as an illiterate African charismatic. To say that the Italian PhD has a responsibility to get the African on the same page regarding evolution is more akin to saying that you as a professional scientist have a responsibility to make sure the average American high school grad is on the same page as you regarding relativity theory. Maybe on some abstract level it’s true, but in this life, it is probably unlikely.

  11. #11 Josh S.
    October 12, 2009

    One more thing I forgot to add. The other reason the example isn’t great is because of the relative population sizes involved. I don’t care to guess at the number of physicists in the world, but it is definitely far less than the 2 billion plus Christians. The only “requirement” to call oneself a Christian is a profession of faith in Christ, whereas physicists have to undergo a certain level of professional training and evaluation. Therefore the community of physicists can remain cohesive due to size and entry requirements. It’s a lot harder to keep an Italian PhD in astronomy on the same page as an illiterate African charismatic. To say that the Italian PhD has a responsibility to get the African on the same page regarding evolution is more akin to saying that you as a professional scientist have a responsibility to make sure the average American high school grad is on the same page as you regarding relativity theory. Maybe on some abstract level it’s true, but in this life, it is probably unlikely.

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