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Western Slope Skies - Clergy & The Cosmos

Image of Robert A. Millikan, Georges Lemaitre and Albert Einstein at California Institute of Technology, January 1933
Wikimedia Commons - photographer unknown
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Robert A. Millikan, Georges Lemaitre and Albert Einstein at California Institute of Technology, January 1933

There are plenty of good reasons to gaze up at the heavens. Be it the astronomer aiming their telescope at a distant star or the person raising their hands in reverent prayer, both are looking upward for answers to important questions. Some would argue that these two realms, the material and the spiritual, should not or cannot overlap. Yet others have found that the two can coexist, and can even complement each other.

In specific, the Catholic Church has managed to honor both scientific discovery and religious tradition. Though the stories of Copernicus and Galileo are certainly stains on the Church’s past, it is worth noting that multiple popes have formally acknowledged regret over such matters, the most recent being Pope John Paul II in 1992. The Church supports science, and even boasts a collection of priests who doubled as astronomers.

The contributions of these astronomer-priests are many. From countless observation hours, to the discovery of Mercury’s orbital phases, to thousands of pages of influential scientific writing, these men of faith have proven themselves to also be men of the cosmos.

One of the most influential figures, Father Georges Lemaitre, was a Belgian priest and astronomer in the 1900s. In 1927 he introduced the notion of “the primeval atom,” which proposed that the universe began as a single atom and expanded from there. Though his article preceded Edwin Hubble’s writings on the subject by two years, Lemaitre’s article was published in an obscure Belgian journal and was not widely circulated until after Hubble’s writings. The primeval atom is now better known as the Big Bang Theory, a term derisively coined by Fred Hoyle.

Theology and astrophysics collided, as Lemaitre celebrated mass in the morning and debated the Big Bang with Albert Einstein in the afternoon. The Catholic Church did not oppose Lemaitre’s work, as the theory posed no threat to Church teaching. Meanwhile, the scientific community took some time to get on board with his ideas. Today, most scientists accept Lemaitre’s Big Bang and expanding universe theories.

How exactly did Lemaitre and those like him interact with both the spiritual and material realms simultaneously? Lemaitre remarked, “The pursuit of truth is the highest human activity…It appeared to me that there were two paths to truth, and I decided to follow both of them.” Rather than divorcing his science from his faith, he chose to join the two in a beautiful marriage, being brave enough to unite the profession of a cosmologist to the vocation of a clergyman. Perhaps we too can be brave enough to consider the possibility that the seemingly infinite cosmos are a window into something even greater still.

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Western Slope Skies is produced by the Black Canyon Astronomical Society and KVNF Community Radio. This episode was written and voiced by Gina Loewen.