Science is to make way for diplomacy at the Pope’s summer residence, with the dismantling of the astronomical observatory that has been part of Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, for more than 75 years. The Pope needs more room to receive diplomats so the telescopes have to go.
The eviction of the astronomers and their instruments, reported by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, and their removal to a disused convent a mile away, marks the end of a period of intimacy between popes and priest-astronomers that has lasted well over a century.
Father Jose G. Funes, the present director of the observatory, known as the Specola Vaticana, insisted that there was no sinister significance in the move. “It is not a downgrading of science in the Vatican,” he said. “To remain within the palace would have had only a symbolic significance, whereas where we are going we will be even more comfortable. Nearly everybody is in agreement with the move even though I realise that every change produces disquiet.” His predecessor, Father George Coyne, said, “I agree completely with Father Funes. We have discussed the issues many times together and with the rest of our Jesuit staff.”
But symbolism is exactly what close watchers of Pope Benedict XVI see in the move: confirmation of the view that he is far less receptive to what scientists – including scientists in dog collars – want to tell him than his recent predecessors. He has, for example, spoken in favour of intelligent design, in flat contradiction of the views of the observatory’s former director.
The popes have been conducting a love-hate affair with astronomy ever since Galileo. Of obvious interest to them, for example, are the efforts of astronomers to pin down exactly which wandering star led the three wise men to the stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.