What the Pope’s Astronomer Thinks

Over at Physics and Physicists, ZapperZ notes a fairly useless interview with Guy Consolmagno, and suggests some alternative questions:

1. How old do you estimate the universe to be based not only on your observation, but also the consensus among astronomers? Would this be contrary to the biblical interpretation on the age of the universe? What about the Young Earth’s interpretation of the age of the universe?

2. What is your view of the treatment received by Galileo by the church? {Oh c’mon, you knew that one was coming, didn’t you?}

These would be better questions than what was asked in the interview, but not for the cheap “gotcha” reasons that seem to be behind them. ZapperZ is falling into one of the classic blunders, somewhat down the list from “never get involved in a land war in Asia,” namely “don’t mistake Catholics for Protestants.”

Young-Earth Creationism is a Protestant heresy. In fact, it’s mostly an American Protestant heresy. It is not the official doctrine of the Catholic church, and has not been the official doctrine of the Catholic church for a century or more. (I don’t believe that Biblical literalism of the wacky American fundamentalist sort has ever been official Catholic doctrine, though I wouldn’t stake all that much on it.) The Big Bang theory in particular, which is name-checked in a later question, was developed in large part thanks to the work of a Belgian priest, Monsignor Georges Lemaître.

The official doctrine of the Catholic Church is perfectly compatible with a metaphorical reading of Genesis (as, to be fair, are the official doctrines of most mainline Protestant dominations), which in turn means that Brother Guy would have no problem or hesitation in answering that the Universe is 14-ish billion years old, as determined from astronomical observations. I can say this with some confidence having hosted him when he visited Union about a year ago, and he said more or less what I said above.

As for Galileo, as I wrote last year:

[S]omebody did ask Guy about Galileo at one of his talks. His answer was basically that the Church gets bad press on this for the wrong reasons. The real story of Galileo’s trial, he said, is all about politics and the Thirty Years’ War. The Church doesn’t end up looking any better, but they look like idiots for a different set of reasons than are generally assumed.

I do sort of wish the Detroit Free Press had asked those questions, just because it would be nice to have yet another source to point to as evidence that not all Christian denominations are run by frothing lunatics. The answers wouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who knows anything about the Catholic church, but it’s always good to remind people, in the same way that it’s worth patiently explaining yet again that the Large Hadron Collider is not going to create a black hole that will swallow the Earth.

The only question on the list that I don’t know the answer to is the third:

3. If there are other life forms in the universe, do you think that they would have the same set of beliefs? I mean, if there is only one god, shouldn’t they also had the same revelation? Does the bible predict their existence?

Actually, I kind of doubt that the Church would have an official position on this matter. As Brother Guy is an avid fan of science fiction as well as a Jesuit brother, though, he’s most likely given the idea some thought. Next time I run into him at a convention, I’ll try to remember to ask.