Vale Fr George Coyne: a man of religion and science

Vale Fr George Coyne

The passing of Fr George Coyne on February 11, 2020, at the age of 87, may not have garnered the attention of the chattering classes, but it should have caused many in the culture wars to take stock and honour this man whose life and work shattered some of the presumed stereotypes of religion versus science.   

As the Vatican astronomer for 28 years and head of the Observatory’s research at the University of Arizona from 1978 to 2006, which he then followed by lecturing at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, Coyne was the very model of a man who worked with intellectual freedom and brilliance right at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church.

Coyne was recognised for his research into the birth of stars, and there is an asteroid named after him. His belief that scientific discovery was perfectly compatible with Christianity was even open to the existence of extra-terrestrial life.  He was influential in the Vatican’s decision to issue an apology for its treatment of Galileo.

 In the science versus religion wars, everyone thinks of Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), the Renaissance polymath, known mainly for his ground breaking astronomy.  Richard Dawkins, the anti-religion proponent, always emphasises the case of Galileo, who was censured by the Church when he echoed the finding of the Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), that the earth revolved around the sun.  It contradicted Aristotle’s widely accepted belief that the planets were situated on fixed concentric crystalline spheres revolving around the the earth. 

Galileo was certainly not the only one to question established ‘truths,’ but he was handled fairly gently compared to Giordano Bruno, who died at the hands of the Inquisition in 1600, burnt at the stake for his many radical ideas, including the infinite God inhabiting an infinite universe.  In truth, Bruno, who was a Dominican friar who spent some years as an itinerant preacher, was on a collision course with the Church on just about every point of Christian doctrine.  In contrast, Galileo’s last years were spent in relative luxury, entertaining many leading thinkers, such as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes and the poet John Milton, at his beautiful Villa Il Gioiello in Arcetri, near Florence.

Another Catholic priest, Fr Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680), who taught at the Jesuit Collegio Romano in Rome, not only echoed Bruno’s discoveries of the infinite universe, he also wrote a remarkably candid description of it, while also ridiculing the belief that the planets were contained in fixed crystalline spheres.  Written in a fantasy genre, Ecstatic Celestial Journey is one of the great examples of how communicating new and radical discoveries is sometimes best done indirectly.  It was a great success.

Kircher was consistent with Bruno and Galileo and a host of other thinkers who thirstily drank from the waters of knowledge that expanded with the printing of books.  Kircher’s maxims that “Nothing is more beautiful than to know all” and ‘The highest mountain, the oldest books, the strangest people, there you will find the stone”  (meaning ‘the philosopher’s stone’) was true of many churchmen, who often fell victim to church politics and the predilections of particular popes. Kircher was fortunate in that his close friend, Fabio Chigi, who later became Pope Alexander VII (1655-1667), was a close friend and fellow free thinker.

When Richard Dawkins interrogated George Coyne, the Catholic priest and scientist made it abundantly clear that the Catholic church contains many thinking people who are free to push forward knowledge, not only in the sciences but also in theology.  Coyne was at the forefront of many scholars in the contemporary Catholic Church, who do not see a contradiction between their scientific work and their faith, including the evidence for evolution and for the infinite universe.

He said, there are churchmen who presume that their statements reflect the official position of the Catholic church, but most of the time that is not true.  And there are also moments in time when official pronouncements are made, such as when Pope John Paul II publically agreed in 1996 with the best scientific explanation of the origin of the universe.  “It does not contrast with any Catholic teaching.”

This is not to reduce the human being to a material thing, said Coyne, since there are other realms of knowledge, not only the methodology of science, that shed light on what it is to be a human.  As he told Dawkins, on scientific grounds you cannot deny the supernatural, as it is not something measurable or material.  Human endeavours for thousands of years talked about the religious experience which people like Coyne found entirely compatible with his scientific work.   

For Richard Dawkins, the people who wrote the Bible ‘didn’t know anything’ in his own words.  As Coyne explained the poetic literary structure of the Genesis account of creation, Dawkins quickly switched to another subject, clearly irritated by the language and the concepts which have no meaning for him.  As the Book of Proverbs 26:12 says, “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes?  There is more hope for a fool than there is for them.”