Astronomy and the Catholic Church: Facing Questions About the Universe Through a Lens of Faith

Church under night sky
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

I’ve had a passion for science from a young age. This childhood fascination has remained with me into adulthood, thanks in part to my voracious reading habits. Particularly in recent years, I’ve sought out books that discuss the Catholic Church’s relationship with science. For Christmas in 2014, my younger brother, aware of my eclectic interests, gifted me a remarkable book: “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” by Jesuit academics Br. Guy Consolmagno and Fr. Paul Mueller of the Vatican Observatory.

The purpose of their book, written as a series of informative and witty dialogues, is to address some of the most common and controversial questions they’ve received from reporters and interested laypersons about the relationship between astronomy and the Catholic faith. Among the many topics discussed, three in particular had a profound impact on me, as they addressed questions I had wrestled with for many years.

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What really happened to Galileo?

An infamous example of the consequences of improper biblical interpretation is the trial of Galileo Galilei. The Galileo affair is so ingrained in the popular imagination that it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. A close study of the historical record reveals that both sides were at fault.

Church leaders, relying on an overly literal interpretation of certain Scripture passages, massively overreacted to what they incorrectly perceived as a dangerous new theological worldview that removed humanity from the center of God’s care and concern. Galileo, for his part, alienated his allies by his flagrant disregard of the Church’s apprehension. It’s important to remember that in Galileo’s time, Europe was still reeling from the aftershocks of the Protestant Reformation. The Church was in a hyper-defensive posture against novel theological ideas.

For a long time, I was troubled by the accusations I read in other books that the persecution of Galileo was proof that the Catholic Church was anti-science. But as Br. Consolmagno and Fr. Mueller made clear, while Galileo’s conviction for heresy was a regrettable mistake, the situation was far more nuanced than contemporary secularists would have us believe.

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Does the Big Bang disprove the Book of Genesis?

The fundamental problem with this question is that it sets up a false dichotomy between science and faith. In fact, Big Bang cosmology (the idea that space and time have expanded from an incredibly dense primordial quantum state) was first formulated by Georges Lamaître, a Belgian mathematician, astrophysicist, and Catholic priest. The Big Bang is a sound scientific theory corroborated by many subsequent observations, but certain mysteries remain to be solved. Scientific knowledge is always provisional, and our present understanding of the origin and makeup of the universe will inevitably be subject to revision.

The Big Bang is currently a useful model for how the cosmos “got started,” but it doesn’t tell us anything about why the universe exists in the first place. The scientific method cannot answer questions about the value, meaning, or purpose of life. Science and faith are two different but complementary ways of understanding the world.

When I was a teenager I was exposed to the writings of biblical fundamentalists who vociferously condemned the Big Bang (and much of contemporary cosmology) as contrary to the Book of Genesis. For a long time, I wrestled with how to respond to such arguments. As I came to learn, Catholics have faith in the unity of truth. God is the author of both the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature. Any apparent contradictions are the result of either incomplete knowledge or improper interpretation.

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Would you baptize an extraterrestrial?

The Sacrament of Baptism is not a mere rite of passage to gain admittance into a club, it is a participation in the Divine Life of Jesus Christ. If and until positive proof of alien life is found, the question of whether or not an extraterrestrial can become a member of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, remains hypothetical. But at the heart of this superficially flippant question is the same theological concern that troubled the Church in Galileo’s time: Is humanity truly at the center of God’s love and concern?

Some atheists argue that proof of technologically advanced extraterrestrials would discredit the teachings of Christianity, but Br. Consolmagno and Fr. Mueller skillfully debunk these assertions. Regardless of the existence of other intelligent beings in the universe, Christians believe that Earth is indeed a special, unique, and privileged place, because the Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, chose to become incarnate among us as the God-Man Jesus Christ. Furthermore, each individual human being is at the center of God’s concern. It was for each one of us that the universe was created, and it was for each one of us that Christ died.

“Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” is an engaging and fast-paced read that I’ve returned to multiple times. In my opinion, we need more books like it! It exposes many misconceptions about the Church’s long and fruitful relationship with the physical sciences. On a personal level, it has reaffirmed my faith in the unity of truth, and has inspired me to ponder some profound questions about the origin and destiny of the universe, as well as our place in it.