Sunday, January 06, 2008

Vatican astronomers being upgraded or downgraded?

The Vatican astronomers are moving out of Papal palace at Castel Gondolfo. Are they being "kicked out" or are they being moved to better facilities? Well...you can choose your own story about that. Here is a version that supports the eviction theory:
The Pope has given the Vatican's Jesuit astronomers their marching orders, banishing them and their infernal instruments from his summer palace and billeting them in a disused convent instead.

The astronomers' eviction from the Castel Gandolfo has been put down to Benedict XVI's need for more space to receive visiting diplomats, according to The Independent.

According to the paper, the Jesuits who run the observatory are putting a brave face on their enforced removal, with the observatory's director Father Jose Funes, insisting: "It is not a downgrading of science in the Vatican."

However, observers will no doubt see this as a negative move in the Church's relationship with science, which dates back to that other troublesome astronomer, Galileo, and beyond. Benedict has been accused of looking to turn the clock back on his predecessor's embrace of science, to the extent of apparently endorsing intelligent design.
And here is a version that says that the move is meant to be an upgrade:
After more than half a century based at the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo, the Vatican’s astronomers will be moving to bigger, more modern facilities.

The astronomers’ new offices and residences still will be located on the grounds of the papal summer residence in the hill town of Castel Gandolfo, about 15 miles south of Rome, but they will be in a completely renovated convent nestled in the papal gardens.

“This is going to be a great improvement” for carrying out the astronomers’ work and studies and the new residences “will be a whole lot more comfortable,” said U.S. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno.
From the information we have, I would side with the latter story. There is no reason yet to believe that the Pope has grown tired of astronomers and has kicked them out. The astronomical facilities at the Vatican are indeed old and so I can totally see them improving on those. Plus, significant astronomy for the Vatican happens in Arizona where they have research grade telescopes. If funding for those starts to shrink, then certainly we can start asking more questions (also see an earlier post about an astronomy conference sponsored by the Vatican Observatory).

Another issue is connected to the evolution/intelligent design debate. While Vatican astronomers have been quite vocal in support of evolution, there have been speculations that Pope Benedict has some sympathy for the theory of Intelligent Design. Well...so far he has not come out in its support. So until he does, I see no reason to give credence to rumors about another science versus religion clash in the Catholic Church.

If you have more information about the relocation of astronomers, let me know. This coming March, as part of Hampshire College lecture series on Science & Religion, we will be hosting the Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory, George V. Coyne, S.J., and I hope we will be able to learn more about these issues.