Vatican's space mission

By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

Image caption,
The clergy once persecuted astronomers, now it is finding common purpose

"If the Big Bang was the start of everything, what came before it?"

That is one of the questions being posed by a new website being set up by the Vatican and Italy's scientific community.

After centuries of mistrust between religion and science, the intention is to give the public a greater understanding of both sides.

The website, which will be available in Italian and English, has information on everything from astronomy to theology, from space missions to philosophy and art.

It will have three portals - one for a general audience, one for students and their professors, and one for scholars.

Within each portal, there will be a variety of multimedia platforms, including a cosmology section, and one that will have the latest data collected by satellites and unmanned probes.

The venture is being run jointly by the Vatican and the Italian Space Agency, ASI.

All the answers?

Monsignor Gianfranco Basti, the dean of the Pontifical Lateran University's philosophy department, will be the Vatican's point man on the scheme.

He says: "From the Church's point of view, this is about getting religious people to see that scientists are not the enemy and getting scientists to see that religious people are not the enemy.

"The aim is for both sides to come together for the good of humanity."

ASI's Piero Benvenuti believes it is all about understanding reality.

"Science can help in that, but it doesn't have all the answers, and we must accept that," he says.

While the Vatican will oversee the website's theological sections, ASI will look after the scientific content, including the latest European and American space flights.

Uneasy bedfellows

The Catholic Church's links with astronomy date back to the 16th Century, when Pope Gregory XIII formed a committee to study the relevant scientific data.

Image caption,
Galileo was among those who fell foul of the Church's doctrines

Since then, the papacy has maintained its interest in astronomical research with some degree of continuity.

Its first observatory was constructed in Italy at the end of the 18th Century.

In 1993, the Vatican's Advanced Technology Telescope was completed on Mt Graham in Arizona, and is regarded by many as the best astronomical site in the continental US.

But there was a time when the Church was hostile to those who challenged orthodox teachings.

In the centre of Rome you can still see the statue of Giordano Bruno.

He was a Dominican friar who was burned at the stake in 1600 for suggesting the universe was infinite.

Galileo, the 17th Century astronomer and mathematician, also found himself in hot water with the Church for claiming that the Earth revolved around the sun.

Does love exist?

The Catholic Church has come a long way since then.

It is no longer suspicious of those who try to explain the universe in scientific terms.

Where there are scientifically proven explanations for things, the Church says they should be accepted. Where there are not, then faith may have a role.

The Church says it is about parallel realities, not competing ones.

"I can believe in God and at the same time accept Einstein's theory that time has not always existed," says Msgr Basti.

Professor Benvenuti agrees with this double truth.

"I cannot, as a scientist, prove love exists, but I know it's there," he says.

In the same way, the Vatican's senior astronomer has gone on record as saying intelligent beings created by God could exist in outer space, and that alien life does not contradict Church doctrine.

That is why the Vatican is now supporting the new website, with its mixture of hard data and philosophical interpretation.

It is about uniting to overcome the divide between fact and faith - what is explicable and what is not.

The strength of Christian beliefs and the rigour of scientific endeavour make this a unique tool, with the message that when it comes to our origins, proof and trust can exist together.

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