Vatican’s Celestial Eye, Seeking Not Angels but Data

“Got it. O.K., it’s happy,” says Christopher J. Corbally, the Jesuit priest who is vice director of the Vatican Observatory Research Group, as he sits in the control room making adjustments. The idea is not to watch for omens or angels but to do workmanlike astronomy that fights the perception that science and Catholicism necessarily conflict [Perception, is it?].
The Roman Catholic Church’s interest in the stars began with purely practical concerns when in the 16th century Pope Gregory XIII called on astronomy to correct for the fact that the Julian calendar had fallen out of sync with the sky. In 1789, the Vatican opened an observatory in the Tower of the Winds, which it later relocated to a hill behind St. Peter’s Dome. In the 1930s, church astronomers moved to Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence. As Rome’s illumination, the electrical kind, spread to the countryside, the church began looking for a mountaintop in a dark corner of Arizona.
Building on Mount Graham was a struggle. Apaches said the observatory was an affront to the mountain spirits. Environmentalists said it was a menace to a subspecies of red squirrel. There were protests and threats of sabotage. It wasn’t until 1995, three years after the edict of Inquisition was lifted against Galileo, that the Vatican’s new telescope made its first scientific observations.
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