Da Vinci Code, Vatican Observatory

By Enza Ferreri

Da Vinci Code and Vatican Observatory

Although Dan Brown’s best-selling book The Da Vinci Code and the film based on it are mostly set in France and the UK, one of their characters, Bishop Manuel Aringarosa, travels to Italy.

The place he visits is particularly interesting.

He goes to Castel Gandolfo, a medieval town in the Castelli Romani hills surrounding Rome. The small town, part of the Circuit of the most beautiful villages in Italy, is home to the summer Residence of the Popes which, despite being 12 miles from Rome, has extraterritorial status as one of the properties of the Holy See.

The Pontifical Palace, outside or near which many scenes from the movie The Two Popes were filmed, is immersed in splendidly baroque private Gardens and overlooks Lake Albano.

The Papal Palace (or Apostolic Palace) of Castel Gandolfo, built in the first years of the 1200s and become property of the Church in 1596, houses on its grounds the Specola Vaticana, or Vatican Observatory, an astronomical research and educational institution supported by the Catholic Church, which is one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world and one of Europe’s most advanced astronomical observatories.

The Vatican Observatory, although its original roots go back to the reform of the calendar by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, was founded in 1891 by Pope Leo XIII. The astronomical observatory initially stood in the city of Rome on the Vatican Hill, behind St. Peter’s Basilica, but, as the luminescence of the city of Rome increased, Pius XI had it moved to Castel Gandolfo, entrusting it to the Jesuits. More recently, the same problems with luminescence and light pollution made Castel Gandolfo location difficult for observation, and in 1961 the Observatory established the Vatican Observatory Research Group (VORG), with offices at the Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona (USA), where most of the cosmological observation activities take place.

Even a cursory reading shows that Dan Brown has no familiarity with the subject he chose for his book. This is an extract from the description of Aringarosa’s visit to Castel Gandolfo, after Brown depicted the Bishop as a “traditionalist”:

Aringarosa had never been comfortable with the Vatican’s historical need to dabble in science. What was the rationale for fusing science and faith? Unbiased science could not possibly be performed by a man who possessed faith in God. Nor did faith have any need for physical confirmation of its beliefs.

This betrays scarce knowledge of what Catholics who don’t want to change the 2,000-old Tradition of the Church that, just by intact preservation, goes back to the words of Jesus Christ Himself, really think.

Christianity and Scientific Revolution

Real Catholics, whom Browns calls “traditionalists” (as if you could be a Catholic without being faithful to the Tradition of the Church, one of the Pillars of the Faith), far from seeing faith and science as distant or even opposites, know that without Christianity there wouldn’t have been science.

This is why science was born in Europe and not elsewhere, because Europe was Christian.

Claiming, as some do, that Babylonians, Arabs, Indians, Egyptians, or Chinese had science because, say, they had made astronomical observations is inaccurate.

An observation is just that, an observation. If you cannot understand what you’ve observed, if you cannot explain it by advancing a theory and then empirically testing it, you don’t have science, which implies the existence of an explanation of phenomena which can be put to the test.

This is why we call “Scientific Revolution” what happened in Europe during the Renaissance in the first half of the 1500s.

Galileo Galilei, who was a fervent Catholic, is the only man ever existed who was both a scientist at the greatest level and a philosopher of science at the greatest level. No other man ever achieved that.

Galileo formalized the method that science adopts to this day. The scientific method, or “experimental method” as Galileo called it, is: “sensate esperienze e matematiche dimostrazioni”. In English, sensible experiences and mathematical demonstrations. This is exactly the same now: the empirical moment and logic (Aristotle’s logic, as it is the only one), specifically as mathematics, which is an expression of logic, are the two pillars of science.

We think that the idea that nature has an order is obvious because we come from a Christian milieu. But in fact, if we reflect on it, it is not obvious at all. To primitive men and non-Christians, nature must have seemed extremely unpredictable and chaotic. The weather always changes, natural catastrophes appear out of the blue, and so on.

Science can only be established when men think that nature has an order, and the latter concept comes from the belief that nature is the result of the mind of a Person like ourselves, a mind qualitatively similar to ours although quantitatively infinitely greater than ours.

Science is the search for that order. The very word used for the most fundamental propositions of science, the “laws” of nature, clearly reveals its anthropomorphic character. We humans give order to our society through laws, and God gives order to the nature He created through laws.

Galileo expressed very well why science could only develop from the idea of a Creator Who is a Person like ourselves. He said that science consists in reading the Book of Nature, which is written in mathematical language. We think that we can understand a book we read because we believe that the book’s author has a mind similar to ours and uses our language. The same with God and the Book of Nature.

Monsignor Georges Lemaître Discoverer of the Big Bang

In reality, not in fiction (we don’t want to follow Dan Brown’s example in confusing the two), a few years ago, in 2017, the Vatican Observatory hosted a conference on a subject which is very suitable to illustrate this point.

The scientific conference had as its subject “Black Holes, Gravitational Waves and Spacetime Singularities” and was named Workshop Lemaitre, after the Belgian Catholic priest Monsignor Georges Lemaître (1894-1966), who formulated the big bang theory.

In reality Georges Lemaître spoke of the theory of the original atom, whereas who gave it the name of “big bang”, in order to ridicule it, was the English astronomer Fred Hoyle. The two scientists were on opposite positions, but at a conference organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1957 they met and became friends, so much so that they went on vacation together.

The above anecdote was recalled by the Vatican Observatory’s director, Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno.


Vatican Observatory
Workshop Lemaitre
La Stampa
Vatican Observatory Research Group (VORG)
Science of the Vatican Observatory since 2000
Vatican Observatory, Castel Gandolfo, by Stefano Bolognini