A prominent Jesuit scientist and outspoken critic of the theory of intelligent design was recently in Milwaukee to lecture at Marquette University on the intersection of science and faith.

Jesuit Fr. George Coyne (2009 CNS file photo)Jesuit Fr. George Coyne, best known for his three decades as director of the Vatican Observatory, presented “The Dance of the Fertile Universe: Chance and Destiny Embrace” at Marquette’s annual lecture series in astronomy and physics on Friday, Oct. 24.

The address touched on modern scientific interpretations of the origins of mankind, and on how religion plays into society’s understanding of science itself.

“I try and describe as a scientist … from the big bang, 14 billion years ago, up until to day, what happened in the universe. But then I will ask the question, ‘Did God do it?’ It’s a question that’s on everybody’s mind,” said Fr. Coyne in an interview with the Catholic Herald. “And my answer is, frankly, I don’t know – I can’t know from my science. There’s no way. Any scientist who either asserts or denies God’s involvement is not doing science.”

Science may not be able to prove the existence of God, said Fr. Coyne, but faith is another matter entirely. And though he bristles at the suggestion the two subjects can be one and the same, he insists they are fundamentally complementary – that they “can walk the road together.”

“I don’t mean to say it’s easy, but to use your religious beliefs, they can help give a deeper meaning to your science,” he said. “And likewise the science can give a deeper meaning to religious faith.”

In fact, said Fr. Coyne, his own love of astronomy was the result of his vocation as a Jesuit. A native of Baltimore, he graduated from a Jesuit high school and entered the seminary in 1951.

“I had a Greek professor who was also an amateur astronomer, very well-educated, and so in the course of teaching Greek he would get distracted and begin to teach astronomy,” remembered Coyne.

One day the teacher called young Coyne into his office, and asked him why he seemed more interested in talk about radio signals from Jupiter than in the study of Greek. “He said, ‘You’re interested in astronomy? Great, let’s get you reading!’ There’s the genius of a very good teacher. Seize upon a young man’s interest, whether it’s in music, philosophy, science – feed it while the appetite is there.”

Still a novice at the time, Fr. Coyne was not allowed to pursue any interests that would distract him from the study of Latin and Greek. His teacher loaned him his library card and told him to check out astronomy books in secret.

“He gave me a flashlight and I’d have to pull the blankets up over my head every night so nobody would catch me reading these forbidden books. This went on for the longest time until one day I’m carrying a few of these books down the corridor and the dean catches me and there’s all hullabaloo to pay. At any rate, in the long run, what happened is this forbidden fruit … really whetted my appetite for astronomy.”

Fr. Coyne graduated from Georgetown University in 1962 with a doctorate in astronomy, and joined the faculty of the University of Arizona in 1968. Soon after, he was invited to join the Vatican Observatory as an astronomer. He was appointed the observatory’s director in 1978 by Pope John Paul I.

The Vatican Observatory was formally established in 1892 by Pope Leo XIII, but its history dates to earlier observatories founded by the Holy See that existed throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

For several decades the Jesuit-run observatory was located on a hill behind St. Peter’s in Rome, but in the 1930s was moved to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo in the Alban Hills to escape the increasing light pollution of the city.

State-of-the-art telescopes were installed for the purposes of various research projects in the fields of planetary sciences, stellar astronomy, extragalactic astronomy and cosmology.

Under Fr. Coyne’s directorship, the Vatican Observatory established a research center at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory in 1981, later aided by the 1993 construction of the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT).

Fr. Coyne’s departure from the Vatican Observatory in 2006 raised eyebrows after an article published by the Daily Mail suggested that he had been dismissed by Pope Benedict; in 2005, Fr. Coyne had publicly criticized a pro-intelligent design op-ed written by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.

Fr. Coyne categorically denies he was fired, asserting he had been urging his superiors to find a new director for the past 20 years. And though Cardinal Schönborn was a friend and former student of Pope Benedict XVI, the latter did speak out publicly in support of the theory of evolution, calling it in 2007 “(what) appears to be a reality we can see and which enriches our knowledge of life.”

“I would have been flattered to have been fired by the pope. I don’t think he even knew I existed!” said Fr. Coyne. “I had, after eight years as director, I talked to the Father General of the Jesuits and said, ‘I love my job, I love the people I’m working with, but in science you need fresh blood.’ Finally, after 28 years, they accepted the fact that yeah, it would be good to have a new director.”

The rumors were merely a concoction of the media, said Fr. Coyne.

“One journalist says it, others pick it up. The story has a life of its own once it gets started,” he said.

Fr. Coyne was replaced by Argentine Jesuit Fr. Jose Fumes, and went on to become the founding president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, a position from which he retired in 2011. He is now the McDevitt Distinguished Chair in Religious Philosophy at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, where he teaches general astronomy to undergraduate students.

He said that it was “a coincidence of facts” that his resignation was finally accepted shortly after he criticized Schönborn’s New York Times article in an op-ed of his own published by London’s The Tablet.

“(Cardinal Schönborn’s article) says that neo-Darwinian evolution as a purely random chance process is not compatible with Catholic doctrine,” the priest said. “That’s wrong. It’s not incompatible with Catholic doctrine. It simply isn’t.”

Fr. Coyne calls the theory of intelligent design “a religious movement posing as science and it does no good for either” and asserts that a study of evolution can “enrich” religious faith, and vice versa.

“(Consider) the inevitable necessary suffering involved in evolution. We have to have hurricanes, we have to have tornadoes, and, in fact, sad to say, we have to have leukemia. If you’re going to take the knowledge of genetic development seriously, we would not be here if there were not also leukemia,” he said.

“Can you get a deeper understanding of all that suffering that we know is in nature from your theology? That God himself suffered in his Son? That God emptied himself, as we say in theology – he didn’t hold on to his power. Does that help us get a deeper understanding of what we know about biological evolution? To me, it certainly does.”