George Coyne, 87, Vatican Astronomer and Galileo Defender, Dies

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The Rev. George C. Coyne, a Jesuit astrophysicist who as the longtime director of the Vatican Observatory defended Galileo and Darwin against doctrinaire Roman Catholics and challenged atheists, too, by insisting that science and religion could coexist, died on Tuesday in Syracuse, N.Y. He was 87.

His death, at a hospital, from complications of bladder cancer, was announced by the Jesuit-run Le Moyne College in Syracuse, where he had been a professor of religious philosophy after retiring from the observatory in 2006.

Recognized among astronomers for his research into the birth of stars and his studies of the lunar surface (an asteroid is named after him), Father Coyne was also well known for seeking to reconcile science and religion. He applauded Pope Francis for addressing the role that humans play in climate change and challenged alternative theories to evolution like creationism and intelligent design.

“One thing the Bible is not,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 1994, “is a scientific textbook. Scripture is made up of myth, of poetry, of history. But it is simply not teaching science.”

In an article in the English Catholic weekly The Tablet in 2005, Father Coyne sought to reconcile religion with evolution. “God in his infinite freedom,” he wrote, “continuously creates a world that reflects that freedom at all levels of the evolutionary process to greater and greater complexity. He is not continually intervening, but rather allows, participates, loves.”

He went further by finding fault with intelligent design.

“If they respect the results of modern science, and indeed the best of modern biblical research,” he wrote, “religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God or a designer God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly.”

He added, “Perhaps God should be seen more as a parent or as one who speaks encouraging and sustaining words.”

George Vincent Coyne was born on Jan. 19, 1933, in Baltimore, the third of nine children of Frank and Elizabeth (Brune) Coyne. His father was a traveling clothing salesman, his mother a homemaker. He is survived by two brothers, Thomas and Francis.

After being tutored by a nun on weekends (“no Saturday afternoon baseball or basketball for me,” he recalled), he won a scholarship to Loyola High School in Blakefield, Md.

He joined the Society of Jesus when he was 18 and attended a Jesuit novitiate northwest of Philadelphia, in Wernersville, Pa., where his Greek and Latin literature professor imparted a passion for math and astronomy.

Father Coyne earned a bachelor’s degree in math and a licentiate in philosophy from Fordham University in 1958 and a doctorate in astronomy from Georgetown University. He completed a licentiate in sacred theology at Woodstock College in Maryland and was ordained a priest in 1965.

He joined the Vatican Observatory as an astronomer in 1969, taught at the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and directed its Catalina Observatory. He was appointed director of the Vatican Observatory by Pope John Paul I in 1978 and was its longest-serving director, for nearly three decades.

Father Coyne presided in 1993 when the observatory mounted a new Advanced Technology Telescope on Mount Graham in southern Arizona. (Light pollution at the observatory’s historic headquarters in Castel Gandolfo outside Rome had prevented the telescope from being installed there.) He established a research group at the University of Arizona and organized a summer program for graduate students.

In the 1990s, Father Coyne arranged conferences at the Vatican Observatory in collaboration with the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, a program of the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley, Calif.

“Father Coyne oversaw the modernization of the observatory’s role in the world of science,” Brother Consolmagno said. “He essentially re-founded the Specola Vaticana,” using the Italian name for the observatory, which dates to at least the 18th century.

After retiring in 2006, Father Coyne was president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation until 2011, when he was appointed to the McDevitt chair of religious philosophy at Le Moyne, a position he held at his death.

“George was one of the pre-eminent figures in the Catholic world who could speak intelligently and articulately about both science and faith,” said the Rev. James Martin, editor-at-large of America, the Jesuit magazine. “And George, by nature a humble man, could often dazzle.”

In The Times Magazine interview, Father Coyne was asked, “How can you describe the universe as a vast empty infinitude, largely uninhabited, and still believe in—.”

“The centrality of man in the universe?” he interjected, completing the reporter’s thought.

“There’s no doubt about it,” he went on. “To our own knowledge of ourselves, we are unique in creation because of our self-reflexivity. I can know myself knowing. I am having a conversation with you, and I can remember that conversation. To this, the Catholic Church comes along and says, ‘The reason this is true is because you have an individual soul.’”

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