The Vatican Observatory

¡SkyCaramba! Weekly astronomy blog for the week ending April 13, 2013 

The Vatican has had a public relations problem of one kind or another for at least the last several hundred years. One of the longest lasting is the belief that the Church’s views are incompatible with science. Officials high up in the Church’s hierarchy would like everyone to know they don’t oppose science. The perception that they do persists despite measures they have taken to support science. One such measure was the establishment of the Vatican Observatory.

The Vatican Observatory’s history goes back to a tumult called the Galileo Affair. Galileo Galilei, the first person known to have pointed a telescope at the stars and planets, saw things that flew in the face of long held beliefs about everything up there revolving around the earth. He saw four objects changing positions next to Jupiter from night to night. He also saw Venus go through changes much like Earth’s moon going through its phases. Galileo understood Jupiter had its own moons and Venus passed between the earth and the sun and sometimes went to the other side of the sun.

Galileo’s observations around 1611 supported an idea Nicolaus Copernicus wrote about in 1542. Copernicus thought the planets went around the sun. Since before Christianity, learned Europeans had thought the sun, moon, and planets went around the earth. Absent evidence to support the Copernican idea, they weren’t about to change beliefs. Even with proof, most of them scoffed at it. Galileo took it upon himself to change their minds.

The Catholic Church, which had allowed Copernicus to publish his theory, also welcomed Galileo’s observations—at first. Galileo wasn’t always friendly in the way he presented it. Many leading thinkers were slow to accept his observations as proof that the sun is the center of it all. Galileo mocked them. He didn’t limit his criticism to scientific understandings but also derided them for their interpretations of the Church’s theology. In an era when intellectual, political, and religious authority were tightly intertwined, our skywatcher found himself in a lot of trouble.

It took a few years for enough people to dislike Galileo, but he was found guilty of suspicion of heresy in 1633. He spent the last nine years of his life confined to his home and not allowed to publish anything. But it is said there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. And as European scientists observed the skies during and after Galileo’s lifetime, it was unmistakable that the time had come for science to accept that planets went around the sun and not vice-versa.

Galileo’s fans have long said he was persecuted for saying Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. That  tells only part of the story and that is where the Catholic Church has a public relations problem to overcome. When Pope Leo XIII ordered the creation of the Vatican Observatory near Rome in 1891, there had actually already been three previous observatories continuing astronomical studies that had begun before Galileo became so well known. The pope in 1891, however, was acutely aware of anti-Catholic sentiments and wanted to counteract the notion that Catholics hate science.

The Vatican Observatory built after Pope Leo XII’s order moved about four decades later and has moved again since. The current observatory is in Arizona in the United States and is actually leased by an astronomical study team that works for the Holy See. Its web site details the Galileo Affair.

As you look up to the sky, you know not everything was as it appeared to those who looked up before Galileo. We will do well to remember that not everything about Galileo is as we have heard since.