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OBSERVATORY-FUNES Aug-24-2006 (810 words) xxxi

Vatican Observatory's new director discusses faith, science, planets

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- The new director of the Vatican Observatory said it's important to distinguish between the scientific study of natural causes and the religious beliefs of faith.

At the same time, science can sometimes help people "arrive at a knowledge of God," said Argentine Jesuit Father Jose Funes.

Father Funes spoke Aug. 24 in a phone interview with Catholic News Service from the Vatican Observatory in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome. On Aug. 19, Pope Benedict XVI named the 43-year-old priest director of the astronomical observatory.

Father Funes said he thought it would be an almost impossible mission to match the "wonderful work" of U.S. Jesuit Father George Coyne, 73, who was leaving as the observatory director after 26 years.

Father Funes dismissed speculation that Father Coyne had been forced out of the job because of his strong comments in support of evolution and criticism of the "intelligent design" movement.

"It's simply not true that this was the reason he left," Father Funes said. He said the appointment was a natural development after Father Coyne's long tenure and one of many personnel changes being made at the Vatican under the new pope.

As for his own views on evolution, Father Funes emphasized that he was an astronomer specializing in galaxies, not a biologist, and so did not plan to make statements about Darwinism and intelligent design.

He said the role of the observatory is first of all to "do good science in astronomy," and in this way favor the ongoing dialogue between faith and science.

Father Funes, who has taught an introductory course in astronomy at the University of Arizona, said he emphasizes to his students that science is about natural causes.

"I am for good science and good theology. No more than that," he said.

That is not to suggest that faith and science do not influence each other, he said.

"Sometimes science can lead us to believing God. Through reason, the study of the nature of the universe can be a way to arrive at knowledge of God. I would say that," he said.

"I don't see any contradictions between science and religion. What I see are tensions. But it is healthy to have tensions in life. Sometimes tensions allow us to mature," he said.

Father Funes' specific field is nearby galaxies, which he described as galaxies "only" 50 million or so light years from Earth. It's part of an exciting area of astronomy, he said. Astronomers now estimate there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the universe, and some hypothesize more than one universe.

The discoveries about the universe certainly raise the possibility of life on other planets, he said.

"Even in our own galaxy, the Milky Way, we have 100 billion stars. It's possible some stars have planets similar to Earth, and that life could develop, could evolve -- it's OK with me to use the word 'evolution,'" he said.

The idea of discovering intelligent life elsewhere in the universe does not trouble Father Funes from a faith perspective.

"I don't see that this would pose a problem to theology or to our faith, because these creatures, or beings, or 'ETs' if you want, could also be creatures of God," he said.

"It would fit perfectly, I would say, in the scheme of creation," he said.

Next summer, Father Funes said, the Vatican Observatory will sponsor a summer school on the search for extrasolar planets.

The priest said the study of galaxies sometimes gives him a fresh perspective about life and problems on earth.

"This universe is so huge, and we are so small. Sometimes it is difficult for me to understand why people don't take care of our planet, or all the conflicts we have, the wars and terrorism," he said.

"We should be more humble, and I would say more concerned about these things and our use of resources," he said.

Father Funes had just returned from a meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Prague, Czech Republic, where he said a "very exciting debate" was developing about Pluto. The question was whether Pluto is really a planet -- the scientists decided it is not -- and how to categorize a new class of bodies that don't quite fit the classic definition of "planet."

The planetary discussion is "still an open debate, and that's wonderful. This is the way science works -- sometimes we don't know the answer," he said.

Father Funes said he had not yet spoken with Pope Benedict about his appointment.

He said Father Coyne would remain as head of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, which raises funds for the Vatican's Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona. The Arizona research facility relies on donors and is always looking for more of them, Father Funes said.


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