Sometimes I write columns and then decide not to submit them to The Tablet. This was my alternate column for April 2016; this is the first time it’s been published. Comments?
The Vatican Observatory exists to show the world how the Church supports astronomy, and so a large part of my work is traveling the world to talk about our work. Two recent  stops have been particular eye-openers to me.
Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, is the premier center of learning for the Mormon Church. For reasons that still puzzle me, I was invited to be the first non-Mormon scientist to give their annual Summerhays Lecture on Science and Religion.
They went remarkably out of their way to make me feel at home. Indeed, the university guest house even caters to its gentile guests by having a coffee machine — the only coffee allowed on campus. (Stimulants like caffeine are forbidden to Mormons, though they’ve decided that cola-based sodas are exempt.) A planetary scientist colleague of mine there, herself an active Mormon, invited me to her class and organized a seminar for me to talk about my research. I was even taken up to the famous Sundance Ski Resort for an afternoon of snowshoeing. (They’d offered to show me the historical and religious sites of Salt Lake City. I pointed out that, as I live in Rome, hiking their glorious mountains would be more of a treat.)
Meanwhile, a retired chemistry professor (a Catholic married to a Mormon), was my local guide to the oddities of Mormon theology. I had devised a talk that I thought would be non-controversial, examining how we “people of The Book” — Christians, Jews, and Muslims — are free to study nature with science because we reject nature gods: our God is supernatural. But the more I learned of Mormon beliefs, the less clear it was such an assumption about how they view God actually fits their unusual theology.
A month later, I was at a small school set in the rolling hills of my home state of Michigan, a liberal arts university where a third of the students are active Catholics. Hillsdale College is famous for proudly refusing to accept any government money. The sticking point, according to a document that they included in their welcome packet, is how the Government (specifically naming “the Obama Administration”) demands to know the racial makeup of their student population. This is insulting to a college like Hillsdale, which since its founding before the American Civil War has proudly proclaimed that it accepts students of any race or creed. Indeed, Hillsdale sent a record number of graduates to fight for the Union in that war; those veterans are commemorated in a prominent statue on campus. More recent statues honor Winston Churchill, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine that any black student ever encounters prejudice at Hillsdale; in my two days there, I never saw a single black student — or teacher. (I am told they have a few scholarship students from Africa.) When I asked if they had any Jewish faculty, I was told, “he’s retired.” At least they did serve coffee.
I feel churlish commenting about these places. In both schools, the hospitality was genuine and the students were wonderful. Both schools have active astronomers doing first-class work. But in both places, I felt uncomfortably out of place. I realize now that it’s probably how my non-Catholic friends must feel when they visit me at the Vatican Observatory.
The glorious thing, however, is that even though our politics or theology may be very different, we are all nonetheless united by our love of astronomy.
We all live under the same stars. The heavens proclaim the glory of God to everyone.