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Interview with GEORGE COYNE

Interview with GEORGE COYNE S.J.

by Piergiorgio Odifreddi

George Vincent Coyne, S.J. (1933–2020) was an American Jesuit priest and astronomer who directed the Vatican Observatory and headed its research group at the University of Arizona from 1978 to 2006. From January 2012 until his death, he taught at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. His career was dedicated to the reconciliation of theology and science, while his stance on scripture was absolute: ‘One thing the Bible is not,’ he said in 1994, ‘is a scientific textbook. Scripture is made up of myth, of poetry, of history. But it is simply not teaching science.’

In 1891 Leo XIII established the Vatican Observatory, to show that ‘the Church and its pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, human or divine, but embrace it, encourage it and promote it with the most complete dedication.’ In reality, the Church’s interests in astronomy date back at least to Gregory XIII, who reformed the calendar in 1582. The Vatican has had several observatories over the centuries, and the Specola Vaticana is only the latest: today it is divided into two laboratories, one in Castelgandolfo and the other in Tucson, Arizona.

For twenty-five years the Vatican Observatory, was headed by Jesuit Father George Coyne, an astronomer who divided his time between the two workplaces. On October 1, 2002, I interviewed him on the relationship between science and theology: on those same themes, that is, on which he himself organizes periodic interdisciplinary meetings in Castelgandolfo.


Who was the first pope you met?
Paul VI, in Castelgandolfo. Every summer he invited the Jesuits of the Observatory to a meeting, and I have been there a few times after having taken a doctorate in astrophysics. Montini was the only pope to ask for an evaluation of the work, and to want to know what research should be done in the future.

Was he interested in scientific matters?
I would say no. Not like the current pope.

Was it he who appointed you director of the Specola?
No, it was John Paul I. But I never met him: I was staying that month in the United States, and I was involved in several projects, one of them with NASA. For two years I was unable to take up service in Castelgandolfo until 1980.

John Paul II, on the other hand, you knew him well?
Yes. And from the beginning he showed an interest in science, albeit his training is as both philosopher and playwright. In the first year of his pontificate, he came to see the telescopes, and as time went by he always wanted to know more. He brought from Krakow a tradition of encounters and dialogues with scientists, which then extended to our biennial meetings in Castelgandolfo.

Which began with a famous letter on the anniversary of the Newton’s Principia, sent to you?
Not as a person, but as director of the Vatican Observatory. It is an important message.

In fact it is printed on glossy paper, which stands out in the proceedings.
Ah, ah. But the paper doesn’t matter. It marked a very special passage in the history of the relationship between science and faith, recognizing the independence of scientific research from theology and the need for dialogue.

And at the meetings he spoke of?
The first was on physics, philosophy and theology, and looked more to the future than the past. The others were on more specific topics: cosmology, neuroscience, biology, complexity. … Half of the participants are specialists in these fields, without differentiating by sex or religion: neither women nor men, neither Muslims nor Catholics. The other half are interested philosophers and theologians to the topic.

What results have there been?
We have seen that the dialogue exists, and it is profound.

Also on the Galileo case?
There was an investigative commission on this, which John Paul II had decided to establish in the first year of his pontificate, but which began to work only a year and a half later: a strange delay, a little difficult to explain. Officially the problem was the study of Ptolemaic systems and Copernican, but obviously the Galileo case lay behind it.

Were you involved?
Yes. I was the head of one of the four commissions, the one on the epistemology of science. Unfortunately, the commission was a bit of a failure for several reasons and did not answer the questions of the Holy Father.

Which ones, in particular?
Those relating to the wrongs and reasons of the two parties. The conclusions presented by Cardinal Poupart are disappointing. Galileo is accused of having betrayed the same scientific methodology, because he did not consider the Copernican system as a pure hypothesis: in other words, he was not a good scientist! This is certainly wrong: to speak of ‘hypotheses’ in that sense means considering the Copernican system as a mathematical device, which has nothing to do with the nature of the universe.

Which was what Osiander wrote in the introduction to the book of Copernicus.
Exactly. Instead one could use the other sense of ‘hypothesis,’ which we use nowadays: an attempt to approach the truth by means of an explaining theory with the data currently known, although it can be changed in the presence of new data. As far as I know, Galileo never said he had evidence of the Copernicanism, but he had clues in favor, yes!

You also mentioned the possible wrongs of the Church.
It has been said that theologians did not know how to interpret Sacred Scripture, and that inthis Galileo was better. The paradox has arisen that Galileo was a better theologian than the theologians themselves, but a bad scientist. And that the theologians instead were better scientists than he, but bad theologians.

And do you agree?
Absolutely no! Everything is wrong. The fault of the Church of the time, that cannot be excused, was for not having left the way open in the search, of having closed the matter.

It has happened at other times as well.
Yes, and it could happen again.

For instance?
Bioethics and genetics. I’m a bit critical of the Church on this point, but history will prove me right.

And what about evolutionism?
The Pontifical Academy holds a plenary assembly every two years, and in 1996 the theme of the works was the origin of life in the universe. On that occasion John Paul II sent a short message, only four folders, in which he mentions the soul at the beginning, but then he abandons it and goes on to talk about spirit, which is very different from the soul.

But just as immaterial, I guess.
Those who believe, like me, think that we are incarnate spirits.

Or inspired meats.
And witty too, at times!

But let’s go back to the papal message.
John Paul II takes up and repeats what Pius XII said in Humani generis: the human person is the result of the material evolution of the universe, but the soul is the product of direct divine intervention. Every pope has the enormous weight of not being able to contradict his predecessors. But then the message goes on to speak of man as a being who belongs to the physical, chemical, biological and spiritual evolution of the universe.

Does he literally say so?
He doesn’t use these words, but that’s the point. That is, it leaves the possibility open that the spirit emerged from evolution, although obviously with the ‘caress’ of God.

What do you think personally?
As a scientist I think so, that spirit emerged from matter. Maybe it is a bit heretic to say, but heretic and true are two things that …

… don’t often get along?
Isn’t that true?

Yes, but also a heretic! However, you see this opening?
Certainly. It was a challenge to the theologians. By the way, the Holy Father sent the message but didn’t read it in person. I don’t think it was a fortuitous circumstance: I think he did not want to emphasize too much the content, solemnly reading it in the presence of the cardinals and the body diplomatic.

He sent it in a bottle.
Yes, with a nice red ribbon.

Or white and yellow. But he doesn’t think there is a discontinuity between all of theseopenings and closures of the Fides et ratio (Faith and Reason)?
That encyclical is a strange document.

I call it Fides et Ratzinger.
It is not even that, because Ratzinger is not the traditionalist who often you might think. I would say that the encyclical does not combine well with the tradition of the pontificate of John Paul II. It is not known how to insert it in the development of his thought. I know that some Polish friends close to the Pope have also valued it a little negatively. 

Enough of popes. Let’s talk about you, and your quite original idea of ​​the divinity.
I believe that the problem of God is completely disconnected from the problems related to nature. Even if the universe were infinite in time, without origin and without end, this would not be a challenge to the existence of God.

That is, God is not the Creator?
If there was creation, then it is an aspect or a manifestation of God. But for me, as a believing scientist, God’s creative act does not compete with science. No theory of the beginning of the universe can dent the conception of God, if we understand it not as the cause of existence, but as its reason to be.

Do you mean the conception of God as the rationality of the universe?
That would be a very poor God, and certainly not the one of faith.

Is faith therefore superimposed on, or parallel to, science?
In a certain way, yes. I felt a call to receive God: it is not a miracle, but human events that led me to receive this gift of faith. In answering this call, I have come to the point of being almost sure of His existence.

Security is not of this world.

And it’s not based on evidence, then?
Absolutely not. Reason or nature can support me and me give a little more self-confidence.

So there is little we can do: we must be called?
Yes, yes. As a scientist I investigate the world, and I arrive at a certain point where I ask what creation says about the Creator. And I find an intimate relationship, but not purely rational.

What do you think of an evolving God, like that of Teilhard de Chardin, who has tried to introduce the Anthropic Principle into science?
Forget it. I absolutely exclude a relationship between God and parameters of physical theories. As I said before, God has nothing to do with these things.

This is a very abstract image of divinity, which I can also understand. Do I not understand instead how it is reconciled with the concreteness of the Incarnation?
I would say that God, in the abundance of his goodness, wanted to share himself with ussending us his only Son.

Why unique? If there were other lives in the universe, why shouldn’t He share with them too?
I have asked myself that too, several times. Can it be excluded that Jesus Christ, completely man and completely God, was also born on other planets?

Well, fully man would be difficult. Maybe completely something else.
Completely Martian and completely God? I find it hard to believe.

And without going to Mars, but only changing continent? That is, the other incarnate divinities, what relationship do they have with Jesus?
Ah. I really don’t know how to answer. 

Can we think that they are just different manifestations of the same divinity?
I don’t believe it. They can be participators, but the only Son of God is that of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Isn’t it a little strange that believers almost always have the faith of mom and dad?
Certainly, I am the child of a certain tradition. But I find it difficult, however as far as I know about other religious cultures, accept that there is another ‘true’ manifestation of God. 

Isn’t this a problem of monotheism?
Dialogue is very difficult, even with other monotheisms.

Can the three persons of the Trinity be considered as the three gods of the religions revealed? That is, God the Father as Yahweh, the Son as Christ and him Holy Spirit like Allah?
It is not to be excluded, but honestly I am not up to being able to answer.