LOR: How did the Church’s and Popes’ interest in
astronomy come to be?
FUNES: The origins can be traced back to Gregory XIII, who was
the artifice of the calendar reform in 1582. Father Cristoforo
Clavio, Jesuit of the Collegio Romano, was part of the
commission that studied this reform. Between 1700 and 1800,
three observatories sprung up by papal initiative.
Then in 1891,
in a moment of conflict between the church world and the
scientific world, Pope Leo XIII wanted to found, or better
re-found, the Vatican Observatory. He did it precisely to show
that the Church was not against science, but promoted a "true
and solid" science, after his own words.
The Observatory was
therefore born of an essentially apologetic scope, but with the
years became part of the dialogue of the Church with the world.
LOR: Does the study of the laws of the Cosmos bring us closer to
or farther away from God?
FUNES: Astronomy has a deep human value. It is a science that
opens the heart and the mind. It helps us to put our life, our
hopes and our problems into right perspective. In this sense - and
here I speak as a priest and as a Jesuit - it is also a huge
apostolic tool that can bring one closer to God.
LOR: Give us some examples.
FUNES: Sufficient to remember that about thirty craters of the
moon are named after ancient Jesuit astronomers. And that a
solar system asteroid has been named after my predecessor to the
Observatory, Father George Coyne.
One could also recall the
importance of contributions such as those of Father O’Connell to
the individualization of the "green ray" or of Brother Consolmagno to the declassification of Pluto.
It goes without
saying the work of Father Corbally - vice president of our
astronomical center in Tuscon - who has worked with a NASA team on
the recent discovery of residual asteroids in the formation of
binary star systems.
LOR: Can the Church’s interest in the study of the universe be
explained by the fact that astronomy is the only science that
has to do with the infinite and therefore with God?
FUNES: To be precise, the universe is not infinite. It is very
big, but finite, because it has an age: about 14 billion years,
given our most recent findings.
And if it has an age, this means
that it also has a limit in space. The universe was born in a
determined moment and from then is continually expanding.
LOR: From what has it originated?
FUNES: From my perspective, the Big Bang remains the best
explanation of the universe’s origin that we have at this point
from a scientific standpoint.
LOR: And from there, what happened?
FUNES: For 300,000 years, matter, energy and light remained in a
sort of blend. The universe was opaque. Then they were
Given that now we live in a transparent universe, we
can see light: that of the furthest galaxies, for example, that
arrives to us after 11 or 12 billion years.
One only has to
remember that light travels at 300,000 kilometers per second.
And this very limit proves to us that today’s observable
universe is not infinite.
LOR: Does the Big Bang theory support or contradict the vision
of faith based on the biblical creation account?
FUNES: As an astronomer, I continue to believe that God is the
creator of the universe and that we are not the product of
chance, but children of a good father, who has a task of love
The Bible is not fundamentally a science book. As
Verbum emphasizes, it is the book of God’s word addressed to us
men. It is a love letter that God wrote to his people, in a
language that dates back two or three thousand years.
at the time, the concept Big Bang was completely strange.
Therefore, scientific answers cannot be found in the Bible. In
the same way, we do not know if in the more or less near future
the Big Bang theory will be surpassed by a more comprehensive
explanation of the origin of the universe.
Currently, it is the
best and is not in contradiction with faith. It is reasonable.
LOR: But Genesis speaks of the earth, of animals, of man and of
woman. Does this exclude the possibility of the existence of
other worlds or living beings in the universe?
FUNES: From my judgment this possibility exists. Astronomers
hold that the universe was formed by 100 billion galaxies, each
of them is composed of 100 billion stars. Many of these, or
almost all, could have some planets. How could it not be left
out that life developed elsewhere?
There is a branch of
astronomy, astrobiology that precisely studies this aspect and
has made much progress in recent years.
Examining the light
spectrums that come from stars and planets, soon it will be
possible to single out elements of their atmosphere - the
so-called biomakers - and understand if conditions exist for the
birth and development of life.
For the rest, life forms could
exist in theory, even without oxygen or hydrogen.
LOR: Are we referring also to similar beings to us or more
FUNES: It is possible. Until now we have had no proof. But
certainly in a universe so big this hypothesis cannot be
LOR: And this would not be a problem for our faith?
FUNES: I believe no. As a multiplicity of creatures exist on
earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created
by God. This does not contrast with our faith because we cannot
put limits on the creative freedom of God.
To say it with Saint
Francis, if we consider earthly creatures as "brother" and "sister," why cannot we also speak of an
brother?" It would therefore be a part of creation.
LOR: And what about redemption?
FUNES: We borrow the gospel image of the lost sheep. The pastor
leaves the 99 in the herd for go look for the one that is lost.
We think that in this universe there can be 100 sheep,
corresponding to diverse forms of creatures.
We that belong to
the human race could be precisely the lost sheep, sinners who
have need of a pastor. God was made man in Jesus to save us. In
this way, if other intelligent beings existed, it is not said
that they would have need of redemption.
They could remain in
full friendship with their Creator.
LOR: I insist: if they were sinners, would redemption also be
possible for them?
FUNES: Jesus has been incarnated once, for everyone. The
incarnation is an unique and unrepeatable event. I am therefore
sure that they, in some way, would have the possibility to enjoy
God’s mercy, as it has been for us men.
LOR: Next year, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth will be
celebrated and the Church returns to confront itself with
evolution. Could astronomy offer a contribution to this
FUNES: As an astronomer I can say from observations of stars of
galaxies there emerges a clear evolutive process.
This is a
scientific fact. Here I also do not see a contradiction between
that which we can learn from evolution - providing it does not
become an absolute ideology - and our own faith in God.
exist fundamental truths that therefore do not change: God is
the creator, there is meaning to creation, we are not children
LOR: From these foundations, is a dialogue possible with men of
FUNES: I would say it is necessary. Faith and science are not
irreconcilable. John Paul II said and Benedict XVI has repeated
it: faith and reason are the two wings with which the human
There is no contradiction between that which we
know by means of faith and that which we learn from science.
There can be tensions or conflicts, but we should not be afraid.
The Church should not fear science and its discoveries.
LOR: As on the contrary happened with Galileo.
FUNES: That was certainly a case which has marked the history of
the ecclesial community and of the scientific community. It is
useless to negate that the conflict never was. And perhaps in
the future there will be similar ones.
But I think the moment
has arrived to turn the page and look somewhat to the future.
This incident has left its wounds. There have been
misunderstandings. The Church in some way has recognized her
Perhaps she could have done better. But now is the time
to heal these wounds. And this can be realized in a context of
serene dialogue of collaboration.
People need science and faith
to help each other in turn, but without betraying the clarity
and honesty of their respective positions.
LOR: But then why is this collaboration so difficult today?
FUNES: I believe that one of the problems in the relationship
between science and faith is ignorance. On one side, scientists
should learn to correctly read the Bible and to understand the
truths of our faith.
On the other, theologians and Churchmen
should get up to date on scientific progress to be able to give
efficacious responses to questions that these continually pose.
Unfortunately, even in schools and parishes a way to help
integrate faith and science is lacking.
Catholics often remain
stuck at the knowledge of when the catechism was prepared. I
believe that this is a true and characteristic challenge from a
pastoral point of view.
LOR: In this sense what can the Observatory do?
FUNES: John XXIII said that our mission should be that of
explaining the Church to astronomers and astronomy to the
We are like a bridge, a small bridge, between the world
of science and the Church. Along this bridge, there is one who
goes in one direction and one who goes in the other.
XVI has recommended to us Jesuits in occasion of the last
general congregation, we should be men on the cutting edge.
believe the Observatory has this mission: being on the frontier
between the world of science and the world of faith, to give
testimony that it is possible to believe in God and to be good