One of the most prevalent myths about the Catholic Church is that it has either no interest in science or is antagonistic towards it.
The Sky at Night: Inside God’s Observatory (BBC 4 last Sunday night) blew that one comprehensively out of the water. The programme was introduced as “the highlight” of an evening of astronomy programmes and the Church was described as “one of the most influential organisations in the history of astronomy”.
We got to see the 16th Century Meridian Hall in the Vatican where experiments were done to investigate slippage in the calendar, which led to Pope Gregory XIII scrapping 10 days that October to recalibrate the calendar. The Galileo controversy wasn’t glossed over but obviously it wasn’t as simple as we are often led to believe – the Church was at the cutting edge of astronomy before and since. Bro. Guy Consolmagno, director of the Observatory, outlined the history of this affair and the attendant misunderstandings right up to the public apology of Pope John Paul II in 1992.
We were introduced to key figures from the history – e.g. Fr Angelo Sacchi was a passionate priest-scientist and pioneer in the development of the application of spectroscopy in the study of the stars. Pope Pius XI set up a new observatory in Castel Gandolfo, the Popes’ summer residence and this became a centre for one for one of the biggest astronomical projects, the 19th Century ‘Carte de Ciel’, for the photographing and mapping of the stars in the whole sky.
I’m glad that one of the Church’s best-kept secrets was mentioned – that the 20th Century Jesuit scientist George Lemaitre was a pioneer of the big bang theory. The presenters were impressed by the “cutting edge physics” still practised at Castel Gandolfo.
I was impressed by the wonderful enthusiasm and cheerful energy of Bro. Guy. He said it was a shame if religious people closed their eyes to science, where you could experience God in the data – it was, he said, a rich way to experience the creator. However I’d suggest he overstated the idea that “religion is not in the business of answering questions” but rather is in the business of “suggesting questions”.
Back from the stars, the media was dominated last weekend by coverage of the UK elections. It was one of the topics of last weekend’s Sunday Sequence(BBC Radio Ulster), when one contributor questioned the morality of calling an election in the first place. Worthwhile question – there should be broader questioning of morality in politics – too often morality is invoked only when the hot button social issues are raised.
That show also featured a timely discussion of the radicalisation of young Muslim men. Nazir Afzal, former Crown Prosecutor, said it wasn’t just about religious conservatism. In fact the young jihadists were often ignorant of their religion (one ordered Islam for Dummies from Amazon!), uncertain in their identity and thus more easily manipulated by those who offered them possibilities of redemption through martyrdom for lives often marked by petty crime and drug taking.
To finish, I don’t normally revisit a programme the week after first reviewing it, but I must again admire the new drama series Broken(BBC 1, Tuesday nights), with Seán Bean excellent as city priest Fr Michael. Last week’s second episode featured a beautiful and extended First Communion sequence, as well as some emotionally intense Confession scenes with Fr Michael and a suicidal gambler.
The priest’s troubled past keeps resurfacing in disturbing flashbacks and this latest episode hinted at his mother having had a backstreet abortion...it will be interesting to see how this plot strand develops. Everything rings emotionally true, though the incident with a knife-wielding young man who has mental health issues might have been a tad melodramatic, but no less heart-breaking.
It puts to shame that other priest-centred drama Redwater (RTÉ Sunday nights). A few weeks ago I wrote positively about the first episode, but since then it has taken a severe nose dive into amateur dramatics.
The dialogue is dire, the acting stilted and the plot convoluted as it moves around at snail’s pace. Last Sunday night’s Baptism scene was downright creepy, and the increasingly awkward and passionate gay couple’s country jaunt in a Nissan Micra to collect a Baptism cake was laughable, reminding me of Basil Fawlty’s expedition to collect a duck dish for his gourmet night. ’Nuf said.