Although there has been a perceived schism between Judeo-Christian religion and science for centuries, perpetuated for the most part by Protestant evangelicals in modern times, the Vatican is now attempting to reconcile the popular notion that science and religion conflict with a celebration of the Big Bang Theory. And why not? If not for a Catholic Jesuit, who knows how long it would have taken physicists to formulate the idea of the big bang and prove, in accordance with Einstein’s theory of relativity, that we exist in an expanding universe.
The Roman Catholic Church, in particular the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, has convened a conference this week to honor Jesuit Monsignor George Lemaitre, a pioneer of the idea that the universe began as a dense, high-energy state that expanded into the cosmic expanse we perceive today. As reported by Phys.org, the conference is designed to bring together leading scientists and cosmologists from around the world to talk about black holes, gravitational waves and space-time singularities to honor the contributions to science made by Lemaitre.
It is also part of the Vatican’s ongoing effort to ameliorate, even eliminate, the popular perception of the conflict between science and religion. The conflict between religious faith and science has continued in certain political, social, and religious circles for some time, but the popular point of origin stems from the heresy trials of Galileo Galilei and the prior burning at the stake of Franciscan monk Giordano Bruno (also for heresy) for their insistence that the Copernican model of the universe (that the Earth was part of a heliocentric system) was the true state of the universe, opposing the Roman Catholic Church’s established view that the Earth was the center of the universe.
And contrary to current popular misconception, the Vatican Observatory and Catholic universities around the world have been at the forefront of scientific study and achievement in the past four centuries and longer.
In 1927, George LeMaitre, making his calculations by employing Einstein’s equations regarding general relativity, presented his theory that observations made of receding galaxies were the result of an expanding state within the universe, an expansion that began from a single point of existence. LeMaitre labeled his theory the “primeval atom,” but it is more recognized today as the Big Bang Theory. His work was the first to adequately explain how the cosmos came to exist in its present expanding state from what is known as the initial singularity, the gravitational mass and space-time event prior to inflation.
The following is from a press release from the Vatican Observatory. “He understood that looking backward in time, the universe should have been originally in a state of high energy density, compressed to a point like an original atom from which everything started.”
The present head of the Vatican Observatory, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, maintains that George Lemaitre’s research proves that one can believe in both God and the Big Bang Theory, two ideas that seem to always be in opposition to each other.
“Lemaitre himself was very careful to remind people—including Pope Pius XII—that the creative act of God is not something that happened 13.8 billion years ago,” Consolmagno said the day before the conference. “It’s something that happens continually.”
Consolmagno said that the simplistic notion of merely believing that God created the Big Bang emphasizes that “you’ve reduced God to a nature god, like Jupiter throwing lightning bolts. That’s not the God that we as Christians believe in.”
Instead, he said, Christians believe in a supernatural God, outside of the natural order of things, who is responsible for not only the creation of but the ongoing existence of the universe. He concluded that “our science tells us how he did it.”
Pope Francis, who has led the Roman Catholic Church since March 2013 with a progressive outlook that has been the center of some controversy, also embraces the teachings of science — but with a qualifier. In a 2015 interview with French journalist Caroline Pigozzi (per the Catholic News Agency), he was asked his thoughts on whether or not aliens might exist on other planets.
“Honestly I wouldn’t know how to answer,” the Pope replied pragmatically. He then acknowledge that while scientific knowledge currently excluded that other thinking beings existed in the universe, “until America was discovered we thought it didn’t exist, and instead it existed.”
He added, “But in every case I think that we should stick to what the scientists tell us, still aware that the Creator is infinitely greater than our knowledge.”
The Vatican Observatory conference commemorating George LeMaitre and his contribution to the formulation of the Big Bang Theory will be held until May 12.
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