By Amanda Alexander, Ph.D.
As we admired the glittering winter sky above the Mojave Desert, my father pointed to one star that shone brighter than the others. “Some people think that is the star the Magi followed,” he said. “Others think it may have been Halley’s Comet.”
Though I was only 11 years old, I’ve never forgotten our conversation that night, or how it felt to gaze up at the stars and realize that they were the same stars that shone over Bethlehem some 2,000 years ago.
Curious about the possibility that a sighting of Halley’s Comet might have coincided with the birth of Jesus, I recently looked up what the Vatican Observatory had to say about the star of Bethlehem.
The Vatican Observatory, today located at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, was formally founded in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. In the founding document of the Vatican Observatory, De Vaticana Specula Astronomica Restituenda Et Amplificanda, Pope Leo XIII explained that, in establishing the observatory, he hoped “that everyone might see clearly that the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible dedication.”
Almost 100 years later, Pope John Paul II echoed these sentiments in his 1988 letter to Father George V. Coyne, S.J., then director of the Vatican Observatory. The occasion was the celebration of the forthcoming publication of the proceedings of a week-long conference at Castel Gandolfo. During that conference, leading scientists, philosophers, and theologians had gathered to discuss “Our Knowledge of God and Nature: Physics, Philosophy and Theology.”
In his letter to Fr. Coyne, Pope John Paul II expresses his hope that science and theology may enter into a deeper, more sustained, and mutually beneficial dialogue. He wrote, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”
The letter makes it clear that, just as the Church has always employed the disciplines of philosophy to help articulate the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, it is appropriate today for the Church to also use the disciplines of science. John Paul II wrote, “Just as Aristotelian philosophy, through the ministry of such great scholars as St Thomas Aquinas, ultimately came to shape some of the most profound expressions of theological doctrine, so can we not hope that the sciences of today, along with all forms of human knowing, may invigorate and inform those parts of the theological enterprise that bear on the relation of nature, humanity and God?”
The effect of this letter was immediate. Throughout the 1990s, the Vatican Observatory hosted a series of conferences, collectively known as the Divine Action Project, in which scientists, philosophers, and theologians regularly gathered to work through some of the most pressing questions at the intersection of science and faith, from quantum physics, to evolution, to neuroscience.
Despite the common perception that there is a conflict between faith and science, the Vatican Observatory stands as a reminder that both disciplines can enrich each other and can partner with each other as they seek answers to life’s ultimate questions.
But what about my question: did the Magi actually see Halley’s Comet and follow it? The FAQ Science and Religion page on the Vatican Observatory’s website actually had an answer. The scientists at the Vatican Observatory are hesitant to identify the star of the Magi with Halley’s Comet, both because the timing of the appearance of the comet is off and because ancient people tended to view comets as portents of bad things, not the birth of a king.
Noting that the star is only described in Matthew’s Gospel, the scientists suggest that the star may have been “entirely symbolic.” This, however, should not be a cause concern. They continue, “as Pope Benedict... pointed out in a homily on Epiphany… such symbols are important not in themselves but for the truths that they stand for. It is the birth of the Christ Child, not the star, that matters.”
The Christmas season is a time for celebrating birth and beginnings and so I am delighted to begin this column on Faith and Science with this Christmas edition of the Byte. In this regular column, I will explore some of those pressing questions at the intersection of faith and science and hope that your own faith may be nourished and enriched by what you read here. Let us seek God in all things!
Amanda Alexander has a Ph.D. in systematic theology, has taught at numerous Catholic universities and for the Ministry Formation Institute, currently teaches English at Notre Dame High School in Riverside, and is a member of St. Adelaide parish in Highland.