Fairfield U. Talk Explores Guy Consolmagno’s Journey in Faith and Science

Fairfield U. Talk Explores Guy Consolmagno’s Journey in Faith and Science

FAIRFIELD — In 1983, volunteer Guy Consolmagno lay in bed at a Peace Corps Training Facility in Kenya, feeling severely homesick. He had made up his mind to return to the United States the following day believing he wasn’t cut out to be an adventurer. But on his last night in Kenya, Consolmagno decided to take one final look at the night sky. 

“I later counted there were 15 of the brightest stars in the sky visible at that moment. Most of them are old friends of mine — stars that my dad had taught me when I was a kid, growing up on the shores of Lake Huron,” said Consolmagno, who has a doctorate in planetary sciences. “And I’m looking at this sky, and I’m thinking to myself, why am I homesick? I am home. Anywhere that I can see the stars I know, I am at home.” 

Consolmagno stuck it out in the Peace Corps for two years, teaching high school and college students in Kenya about astronomy and physics. Upon his return, he would eventually join the Jesuits, a religious order in the Catholic Church known for their work in education and for founding institutions including Georgetown University, Loyola University and Fordham University, among others. In 1993, Consolmagno was sent to work at the Vatican Observatory. 

During a talk on Wednesday at Fairfield University — another Jesuit institution — Consolmagno explained the value of learning about the planets and the ways that faith and science work together and support one another. 

He referenced the recent eclipse as a manifestation of God’s constancy and beauty.

“Eclipses are magic in the sense [that] we can predict to the microsecond when and where an eclipse will occur, because the laws of science and the laws of nature — the laws on which the Lord has created this universe — are wonderfully regular and constant from age to age, and our God is reliable,” Consolmagno said. “We do not believe in a nature God who does things on a whim … and yet the beauty is a surprise and unpredictable.”

The Vatican Observatory dates back to 1891, when it was formed under Pope Leo XIII. It was created partially for political reasons; Italy had just been unified, and the Vatican was desperately trying to hold onto its identity as a sovereign nation-state. Having a national observatory, Consolmagno said, provided an entrance into the international community. 

But it was also a declaration of the Catholic Church’s support for science and the pope’s commitment to “embrace it, encourage it and promote it with the fullest possible devotion,” he said. 

Over the next few years, the Vatican would participate in an international project creating an “atlas of the stars.” Nuns used photographic plates to create a catalog of half a million stars. 

The church’s interest in science isn’t relegated to the stars. Pope Francis studied chemistry before becoming the head of the church, and his first papal encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” is a treatise on the importance of protecting Earth from the ravages of climate change.   

Consolmagno described himself as a “Sputnik kid,” having been in kindergarten the year that the Russian satellite orbited the Earth. After graduating high school, he first attended Boston College, then MIT, then the University of Arizona, and then as a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Observatory and MIT. But as he approached his 30th birthday without a steady job, Consolmagno started questioning the purpose of writing papers about the moons of Jupiter when there were people going hungry. 

That’s when he decided to join the Peace Corps. And while he was in Kenya, allowing locals in remote villages to look through his portable telescope, he found the answer.  

“We are feeding our souls by looking at the sky and wondering, ‘What is that?’ and ‘What have we learned? and ‘Maybe I could learn some of that.’ And feeding your soul is important because we don’t live by bread alone — I read that someplace. And that’s why you do astronomy, even when people are starving in the world,” Consolmagno said.

During his time at the Vatican, Consolmagno developed a way to measure the density of meteors, and a one-time graduate student and Jesuit brother who worked under him was called on by NASA a few months ago to help measure samples collected from the asteroid Bennu. 

Consolmagno was also a member of the International Astronomical Union General Assembly that classified Pluto as a dwarf planet, and he’s currently the chair of the IAU task force responsible for naming objects on Mars. 

“They gave me that job because they think I know Latin,” he quipped. 

He’s also the author of multiple books, including one titled, “Would You Baptize An Extraterrestrial … and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory.” He expounded on the question at the Wednesday talk. 

“We believe in a God who is capable of creating whatever he wants, and I’m not going to tell him who he can baptize or not,” Consolmagno said. “The universe is a really big place, OK? The farther away you go in space or in time, the greater the odds are that there’s going to be some other creature out there in a relationship with God. But the lower the odds that we will ever know about it, or ever be able to contact them.”

Consolmagno unequivocally refuted the idea that the church was anti-science. He noted that the Vatican has its own Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which includes scientists from around the world, Catholics and non-Catholics, about half of whom are Nobel Prize winners. The group holds meetings and advises the Catholic Church on advancements in science, everything from artificial intelligence and non-embryonic stem cell research to the James Webb Space Telescope and climate change. 

He added that the Vatican had enabled him to do science freely, a situation he described as the envy of his friends and fellow scientists.

“I didn’t have to grope for grant money. I didn’t have to worry about a three-year grant proposal. … I didn’t have to worry about tenure. I could do the work that I wanted to do,” he said. “The Vatican director said to me when I arrived, ‘Here’s your job, do good science.’ And I was free to do whatever science I wanted.”

He said he initially felt nervous about how other scientists would treat him when they found out he had become a Jesuit brother. Instead, he discovered that his peers were also practicing religious faiths. 

“Scientists are no more or less likely to be atheists than the general population. And most scientists, even the ones who don’t go to church, would not say they’re atheists, but most would say they’re agnostics. They don’t know,” Consolmagno said. “Well, of course you don’t know! None of us know! That’s why it’s called faith.” 

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