Special Report

The Pope and the Astronauts

The Vatican was enthusiastic for the moon landing and space exploration.

By 7.24.09

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Pope Paul's Vl Pontificate has faded from popular memory, completely overshadowed by that of John Paul II.

However it is worth remembering at this time that in 1969 he unequivocally blessed and hailed the Apollo Moon-landing, upholding the Vatican's tradition of support for science, astronomy and the application of human reason.

"Honor, greetings and blessings to you, conquerors of the moon, pale lamp of our nights and our dreams!" was his resounding message to the Apollo 11 astronauts. "Today," he said, "We celebrate a sublime victory!"

Pope Paul spent the night of July 20/21, 1969, watching the moon through the telescope of the Vatican Observatory at his summer residence at Castel Gandolfo. Like countless millions of others he then watched the landing and the first moon-walk on television.

Following his message and a congratulatory telegram to President Nixon, the Pope wrote at length about the event. To mark the 40th anniversary of the landing Vatican Radio is publishing its collection of his reflections on the event, talks he gave, and the text of his speech to the Apollo 11 Astronauts who he met at the Vatican on October 16, 1969. These make it plain that the Pope was an enthusiast for space exploration.

The Pope said Armstrong's words about "one giant leap for mankind" were right on the mark.

"Man has a natural urge to explore the unknown, to know the unknown, yet man also has a fear of the unknowns," the Pope told the astronauts. "Your bravery has transcended this fear and through your intrepid adventure man has taken another step towards knowing more of the universe."

He said the talent, energy, and teamwork behind the moon-shot "pay tribute to the capacity of modern man to reach beyond himself, to attain perfection of achievement made possible by God-given talent." He said he prayed that the knowledge of the Creation would continue to grow and would enable God's power, infinity and perfection to be seen more clearly.

In a number of audiences and addresses earlier in the same year he had emphasized that the Catholic Church applauded the accomplishments of science, technology, and human ingenuity. He also made the point that science must also be applied to solving problems on Earth.

The Pope was carrying on a tradition of the church which existed from very early times, when the Church played a primary role in lifting astronomy out of astrology. (At the tail-end of the Roman Empire Saint Augustine of Hippo refuted astrology by referring to babies born under identical stars who nevertheless led completely different lives. Even when astrology still infected science and thought in general, the Church said such influence could be overcome by Free Will).

J. L. Heilbron of the University of California has said: "The Roman Catholic Church gave more financial aid and social support to the study of astronomy over six centuries, from the recovery of ancient learning during the late Middle Ages into the Enlightenment, than any other, and, probably, all other, institutions."

Modern astronomy may be said to have begun with Copernicus, a Catholic priest, who dedicated his 1543 work, On the Orbits of Heavenly Bodies, to the Pope of the day. Galileo might have avoided trouble as easily as Copernicus did if he had shown a little more diplomatic skill and common sense, for example if he had refrained from mocking a Pope who had befriended and honored him.

The contribution of the Catholic Church to astronomy was massive and unequalled. Without it astronomy might very well never have grown out of astrology at all. The cathedrals in Bologna, Florence, Paris, Rome and elsewhere, for example, were designed in the 17th and 18th centuries to function as solar observatories. Each cathedral contained holes through which measured rays of sunlight could enter and meridian lines on the floor.

Kepler was helped by a number of Jesuit astronomers, including Father Paul Guldin and Father Zucchi, and by Giovanni Cassini, who studied under Jesuits. Cassini and Jesuit colleagues were eventually able to confirm Kepler's theory on the Earth having an elliptical orbit.

Pope Gregory VIII, who founded the Vatican Observatory in 1578, employed the calculations of Copernicus in 1582 to correct the calendar and bring it into accord with the true movement of the Earth, a task of enormous importance and responsibility. 

The Papacy remained intensely interested in geography and astronomy for scientific and political as well as theological reasons, and when as a result of Magellan's first circumnavigation of the world (1519-1522), it was discovered that when traveling around the world one gains or loses a day, it was considered so important that a special delegation was sent to the Pope to explain this.

A Catholic priest, Father Nicholas Zucchi, invented the reflecting telescope. Among the many great Catholic clerical astronomers Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the first asteroid, Ceres, in 1801, and established the observatory at Palermo. Piazzi also obtained modern equipment and instruments for it, and converted Palermo from a backwater in poverty-stricken and ignorant Sicily to a great center for astronomy, a position it has maintained ever since, later being involved with the first imaging X-ray astrophysics. Despite being a Catholic priest and indeed a Professor of Dogmatic Theology in Rome, in 1788 Piazzi traveled to England to work with the astronomer Nevil Maskelyne, a Protestant minister, and the famous instrument-maker Ramsden. A little before this a Jesuit mathematician, R. G. Boscovich, had played a key role in charting the way to modern nuclear physics. In the 20th century a Catholic priest and scientist, Fr. Georges Lemaître, discovered the Big Bang. (He was concerned that it not be used as an argument to prove the existence of God, which he held should be a matter of faith.)

It is also said that Father George Coyne, a previous director of the Vatican Observatory, applied for astronaut training in the 1960s. His provincial is said to have muttered, "If I let you become an astronaut, George, every priest will want to."

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.