Science and religion complement, not contradict, says Vatican astrophysicist

Wilmingtonians interested in the intersection of science and faith will soon get a rare opportunity to hear from one of the world’s experts in Big Bang Cosmology as the Rev. William Stoeger SJ, staff scientist for the Vatican Observatory Research Group in Tucson comes to speak at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

The Rev. Bill Stoeger of the Vatican Observatory

The Rev. Bill Stoeger of the Vatican Observatory

Father William Stoeger had been scheduled to speak about Big Bang Cosmology & Divine Creation at 7:30 p.m. on April 10 at the University North Carolina Wilmington's Kenan Auditorium. But due to a sudden illness, the talk will be postponed. When Stoeger is well enough to travel again, the event will be rescheduled, said Sister Rosemary McNamara, director of UNCW's Catholic Student Center.

Stoeger entered the Society of Jesus in September 1961, studied astrophysics to complete his doctoral degree at Cambridge University, U.K., in 1976 and joined the staff of the Vatican Observatory in 1979.

He now coordinates the Science & Theology Programs for the Vatican Observatory in Rome and at the University of Arizona, where he also teaches. His research focuses on theoretical cosmology, high-energy astrophysics, and interdisciplinary studies relating to science, philosophy and theology.

Spiral galaxy M96 as seen by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope.

Spiral galaxy M96 as seen by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope.

Wilmington Faith & Values recently spoke with Father Stoeger about his research and the new pope with whom he shares a religious order.

Q: As a Jesuit, how do you feel about Pope Francis?

A: I think it’s a very good thing, not just that he’s a Jesuit. The whole church should be happy because he brings obviously a different set of experiences to the papacy. I do think that his Jesuit background and spirituality also provide him with a deep and special preparation for his ministry as pope. He’s very specific that he took his name from Francis of Assisi. I think that there are a lot of deep connections and compatibilities between Ignatian and Franciscan spiritualities, sort of finding God in all things and the emphasis and openness in all things. The poor are a key aspect of Jesuit ministries.

Q: Will having a pope trained as a chemist increase the Vatican’s position and relations with the worldwide scientific community?

A: I think it will help. I don’t know how much emphasis he will give to that whole aspect, but, certainly, the very fact that he has that background will impact how he sees things. I don’t know him personally. There’s a very definite thread of emphasis on that (relations with the scientific community) in the second Vatican council. There needs to be a recognition that science and technology are a key aspect of our culture and, particularly, a contemporary articulation of our Catholic faith needs to take that into account. Our scientific knowledge can be a rich resource to our faith. It also can have its challenges.

Q: What are you studying now at the Vatican Observatory Group in Tucson?

A: My scientific work is on cosmology, the physics of the universe. I was involved in looking at the history of the universe and how it developed. Trying to work out more carefully but to try to confirm the standard model of the universe and propose other slightly different alternative models. For instance, the idea of dark energy – the standard model postulates that ¾ of all energy is dark energy, but we don’t understand what that is. So in order to try to determine whether or not alternative models are really or just as acceptable is an important thing. We don’t understand it, and the science hasn’t confirmed what the dark energy is.

Q: Now that Voyager 1 will soon be the first manmade creation to leave the solar system for the first time, what does that mean for theories of divine creation?

A: There are different ways of looking at that. In some sense, even though the universe we’ve come to know is incredibly vast. In our own galaxy, there are 200 billion stars, and there are several hundred billion galaxies. So in one sense it means we’re very small and insignificant, and it also means God is extremely big. And yet God is very intimate, as we know from our own human experience of love and our experience of Jesus that although God is great, God is very intimate and caring.

The second thing is that, as far as we know, we are the only species we know in the universe so far who are capable of knowing the universe as it is and finding out about it. So, in some sense, we are the ones who have been able to probe the universe, appreciate the universe and explore it like no one else. We are, in some sense, co-creators with God in all that we do. Parents are sometimes referred to as co-creators with God in bringing life into the world. We use our knowledge to harness nature for beneficial means to improve humanity, and we can also harness nature in a destructive way. The more knowledge we have, the more capabilities and the more responsibilities we have to use it for being good stewards of nature and the whole issues of global warming and not overstepping and becoming too arrogant about our knowledge.

Q: You happen to be speaking here the same week the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s religion department is sponsoring a major conference called God of Abraham: God of Peace? God of War?  I noticed you contributed to a Cambridge collection on the subject of an Abrahamic God’s place in creation.

A: The doctrine of creation is common to Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths and St. Thomas Aquinas was in dialogue and influenced by Muslim theologians as well.
Creation from nothing –that’s exactly what I’m going to explain. That is the basis for the Catholic doctrine of creation. The basic idea is well when you say creation from nothing you can’t take that absolutely literally – whatever exists depends completely and ultimately on God all the time it exists so what that means is that creation is not mainly an event in the past but an ongoing relationship that exists with God.

Q: What did you think of the recent news that the universe is much older than we thought at 13.8 billion years? So far does it look as if the Big Bang Theory of creation in a second still holds?

A: There’s a lot of independent evidence that it’s that big since the Big Bang. Most physicists strongly believe there’s something that existed before the Big Bang that led to the Big Bang.
In my talk, I’ll show how we see the universe now. A summary of what we know about the universe from contemporary science, astonomy, cosmology, physics and the different stages of the history of the universe and how we know that that’s true. That doesn’t mean it’s absolutely fixed fact.

There are slightly different models that might rule out dark energy. I will mention the ancient fossilized light that is very well understood in scientific circles. It’s the cosmic microwave background radiation that was discovered in 1965. An afterglow of the Big Bang tells us that the universe was formed like 300,000 years after the Big Bang because it was so hot. It shows us that there were no stars and galaxies yet at that time. . . I’ll speak about what we do know in science and what we think of divine creation, and how they don’t contradict but actually complement each other.

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