Vatican observatory director visits PC to discuss faith, science and the cosmos


PROVIDENCE — On Wednesday, Oct. 25, Providence College hosted a panel discussion titled “Faith in Science: Catholic and Jewish Perspectives on Creation and the Cosmos,” in which those involved compared the Catholic and Jewish views on the relationship between science and religion.
The event was organized by the Jewish-Catholic Theological Exchange, an initiative at Providence College that explores various theological, philosophical, cultural and historical points of interest to both Roman Catholicism and Judaism. The night’s events were co-sponsored by the Humanities Program, the School of Arts and Sciences, and the Development of Western Civilization program.
Speaking to a packed lecture hall made up of professors, students, local clergy and religious, seminarians, and representatives of both the Jewish and Catholic faiths, the talk took the form of an informal discussion between Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., and Dr. Peter Saulson.
Brother Consolmagno, a religious of the Jesuit order, was appointed by Pope Francis to be the director of the Vatican Observatory in 2015, after having previously worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University and MIT and a professor of physics at Lafayette College. Brother Consolmagno’s work has focused primarily on the relationship between asteroids, meteors and the formation of small solar system bodies.
Saulson, a professor of physics at Syracuse University, is best known for his innovative work in gravitational waves. Later in his career, Saulson dedicated a portion of his work to studying the writings of the Jewish rabbi, theologian, philosopher and political activist Abraham Joshua Herschel.
The night’s lecture was also broadcast via Zoom, with people from throughout the country registered for the event. The lecture began with a short introduction from Dr. Arthur Urbano, a professor of theology at Providence College and the chairman of the Catholic-Jewish Theological Exchange, in which he briefly describing the history and mission of the Jewish-Catholic Theological Exchange.
At the start of their discussion, Brother Consolmagno and Saulson described their personal, spiritual and professional journeys, noting the various events that influenced their choice to enter careers in science and how their scientific research both informed and was informed by their faith.
As the lecture continued, both speakers began to explore the philosophical and intellectual underpinnings of modern science and its relations to religion and theology. Both Brother Consolmagno and Sualson noted how the Biblical account of creation on the one hand and, on the other hand, scientific theories concerning the nature and origin of the universe serve two distinct purposes, and yet to some degree inform one another.
Brother Consolmagno noted that one of the messages of the creation story in Genesis is that God created the world in an orderly manner, in accordance with a larger plan. This has long been a major influence on Western thought, as it was one of the factors that influenced the belief that the world has a specific order to it and is rationally coherent, a presupposition necessary not only in theological discussions but also in philosophy and science.
Saulson added to this statement by asserting that one of the most notable commentators on Scripture in the Jewish tradition, the 11th century theologian Rashi, asserted that the purpose of the creation story in Genesis 1 was not to teach us about the order of creation on a purely scientific level, but rather to teach us a series of broader spiritual and moral lessons.
Saulson claimed that such a view was reaffirmed in the modern era by Herschel, who asserted that when the creation story asks the question of why the universe exists, it is not primarily asking about the causal chain of events that led to our existence, but rather the purposes on account of which God created us.
Towards the end of the lecture, Brother Consolmagno stated that the scientific theories by which we understand the world tell us something of its underlying intelligibility, and therefore reveal something about the nature and plans of God, and that there is something spiritually profound about the human person’s desire to properly understand the created realm. Science can therefore serve as a profound way of encountering God.
“We at Providence are extraordinarily lucky to have these two speakers come and spend their time with us,” said Dr. Holly Coolman, a professor of theology at Providence College. “For me, listening to the two of them talk is going to send me out again in kind of wonder at the beauty of the world that God made,” Dr. Coolman continued.
“There is not just an overlap between faith and science, but there is also the possibility of a rich dialogue between the two that leaves us better informed and better educated as a whole.”
“I thought the talk was very inspirational. It taught me to think outside of the box, to look forward into other areas and the combination of faith and science,” said Victoria Adediran, a junior at Providence College who attended the presentation.
“It was packed full of knowledge. It was accessible the whole way through,” said Andrew Morse, one of those in attendance. Morse, a parishioner of St. Paul’s Parish in Cranston, noted that he admired the fact that the speakers emphasized how science and religion do not contradict, but can be mutually beneficial.
“I especially have an appreciation for Brother Guy talking about the fact that we know that science proceeds when we hit contradictions and you have to resolve them, and you can look at some of the tensions between science and religion in the same way,” Morse said. “Those are not things that invalidate one side or the other.”