Stephen Townsend

Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy to the Holy See

Guest blogger for Nigel Baker

Part of UK in Holy See

25th August 2015

The Holy See and Astronomy

The Vatican Observatory. Image: ESA©
The Vatican Observatory. Image: ESA©
The Vatican Observatory, Castel Gandolfo. Image: ESA©

On 25 August 1609, Galileo Galilei demonstrated his first telescope to the Venetian authorities. This invention opened up the skies, and piqued men’s interest in the planets and stars around us and beyond, which in turn has led to modern wonders such as men on the moon, the Hubble space telescope, the Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, and the exploration of our solar system including the recent fly-past of Pluto.  However, many people remember Galileo most for being prosecuted by the Catholic Church for his (then heretical) view that the Earth orbited the Sun, rather than vice-versa. Does that mean that the Catholic Church has historically been against the advancement of science?

No. Although the Catholic Church, in common with many other parts of society, at the time did not believe in heliocentrism, in his book, Galileo had ridiculed then-Pope Urban VIII. The prosecution was more about the fallout between two ex-friends and also about court politics of the time. And the penalty was not particularly harsh – Galileo was sentenced to house arrest in his villa in Florence, from whence he continued to write, including on heliocentrism.

The Catholic Church has a history of supporting the sciences, and especially astronomy. The Gregorian calendar, which we use today, was drawn up using astronomical observations from a tower specifically built for the purpose in Rome in 1580. The Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world, formally dating back to 1789. Father Angelo Secchi (1818-1878), one of the pioneers of solar astronomy, was a Catholic priest who observed the movement of the sun and planets from the Church of St Ignatius in Rome.  In 1891 Pope Leo XIII authorised the construction of a new Observatory on the Vatican walls – where it remained for forty years before moving up to Castel Gandolfo. It also operates a telescope in Arizona. The “Big Bang”  theory was originally mooted by Georges Lemaitre, a Belgian priest, in 1927. And the Church has not just been a pioneer in thinking on astronomy – Gregor Mendel, the founder of the science of genetics was an Augustinian friar. There is even a Pontifical Academy of Science, based in the Casina Pio IV in the grounds of the Vatican.

The Catholic Church teaches that science and faith are complementary not contradictory. There is a long history of priest-scientists. Don’t forget that Pope Francis studied as a chemist.

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About Nigel Baker

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as…

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba (2003-6) and then as British Ambassador in La Paz, Bolivia (2007-11). In July 2016, Nigel finished his posting, and is currently back in London.

As the first British Ambassador to the Holy See ever to have a blog, Nigel provided a regular window on what the Embassy and the Ambassador does. The blogs covered a wide range of issues, from Royal and Ministerial visits to Diplomacy and Faith, freedom of religion, human trafficking and climate change.

More on Nigel’s career

Nigel was based in London between 1998 and 2003. He spent two years on European Union issues (for the UK 1998 EU Presidency and on European Security and Defence questions), before crossing St James’s Park to work for three years as The Assistant Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. At St James’s Palace, Nigel worked on international issues, including the management of The Prince of Wales’s overseas visits and tours, on the Commonwealth, interfaith issues, the arts and international development.

Nigel spent much of the early part of his FCO career in Central Europe, after an initial stint as Desk Officer for the Maghreb countries in the Near East and North Africa department (1990-91). Between 1992 and 1996, Nigel served in the British embassies in Prague and Bratislava, the latter being created in 1993 after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

Nigel joined the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in September 1989. Between 1996 and 1998 he took a two year academic sabbatical to research and write about themes in 18th century European history, being based in Verona but also researching in Cambridge, Paris and Naples. The research followed from Nigel’s time as a student at Cambridge (1985-88) where he read history and was awarded a First Class Honours degree, followed by his MA in 1992.

Before joining the Foreign Office, Nigel worked briefly for the Conservative Research Department in London at the time of the 1989 European election campaign.

Nigel married Alexandra (Sasha) in 1997. They have one son, Benjamin, born in Bolivia in September 2008.

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