Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, integrated his love for “Star Wars” with his passion for integrating faith and science at a speech Tuesday night.
A Jesuit brother with a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Consolmagno became director of the Vatican Observatory in 2015. “The pope’s astronomer,” he oversees about a dozen astronomers who study asteroids, meteorites, and cosmology.
When asked about Pope Francis, who nominated him to the position, Consolmagno joked, “He’s sort of our Yoda,” the Media Project reported. In “Star Wars,” the eccentric small Yoda proved a wise teacher, enabling the good Jedi to defeat the evil Sith.
Ironically, Yoda’s odd speech patterns echo the word order in Latin, the traditional language of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Francis’s own eccentric manner, often engaging with the press in ways that get him in trouble, seems not dissimilar to the way Yoda jokes with his students.
Consolmagno also addressed science, faith, and science fiction seriously. “Science-fiction isn’t about the future but the time it was written in,” Consolmagno said at The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture in New York City. He spoke at an event called “Jesuits and Jedi: Science and Spirituality in the Age of Star Wars.”
Specifically addressing “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,” released in 1977, Consolmagno tied the film to American politics in the 1970s. The film centers around an anti-cynical hero, Luke Skywalker, fighting a clear and tyrannical evil in Darth Vader’s Empire. This contrasted with President Richard Nixon’s resignation amid the Watergate scandal.
“A galaxy far, far away? No, American politics of the 1970s,” Consolmagno quipped.
The Vatican astronomer represents the pinnacle of nerd culture. The 65-year-old planetary scientist — and self-proclaimed “nerd” — has an asteroid named after him, searched Antarctica for meteorites, and has written eight books on space and theology. His most recent book, “Would You Baptize and Extraterrestrial … and Other Questions from the Astronomer’s In-box at the Vatican Observatory,” came out in 2014.
The event Tuesday night focused on clearing up misconceptions about the relationship between faith and science, as well as a celebration of science fiction, especially the “Star Wars” franchise. Since the late 1800s, the myth of an inherent conflict between science and religion has poisoned dialogue about the impacts of Christianity on scientific inquiry.
Contrary to the “conflict thesis,” most of the great scientists who launched the “scientific revolution” in the West not only believed in God, but were devout Christians. Indeed, the very idea of natural laws that humans can discover through reason derives from the Christian view of a rational God and human beings created in His image.
“Neither science nor faith is the goal,” Consolmagno said. “Truth is the goal.”
The Vatican astronomer warned against pat answers in science and religion. “Religion isn’t so cut and dry. If you think you have it all figured out, your religion is dead,” Consolmagno said.
“Intelligence, knowledge and information is so slippery a thing to define,” the astronomer added, mentioning the big picture questions surrounding artificial intelligence and computer technology. “The great thing about science-fiction is that you get to ask the question.”
While Catholicism does not explicitly take a position on science fiction, the Roman Catholic Church has a long history of supporting science. Even Galileo Galilei, for instance, may have gotten into trouble for taking a political stance against the current pope, but he backed up his investigation of the natural world by quoting scripture.
In 1277, the Catholic Church condemned specific Aristotelian teachings in the University of Paris. Those teachings — such as the eternity of the universe — tended to shut down scientific inquiry, and pigeon-hole God into acting in certain “rational” ways. The condemnations forced scientists to examine the natural world. God could have created the universe any way He wanted, so scientists needed to actually investigate to figure out how He did it.
In 1891, Pope Leo XIII established the Vatican Observatory on a hillside behind the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. By the 1930s, the glow of Rome made it nearly impossible to conduct interstellar observations, so the facility was moved nearly 20 miles outside the city. In 1961, it moved again, the to city of Tucson, Ariz.