May 21, 2022 Essay: From Peru to Mars: New Worlds and Jesuit Science

May 19, 2022

What has been the particular Jesuit mark on science? The connection between Ignatian spirituality and my own scientific work is clear, at least to me. “Finding God in all things” means studying “things.”; finding God in the Universe. Seeing how the universe works tells us something about its Creator. But are there more practical effects of being a Jesuit in science?

One thing that is striking when you look at the history of Jesuit scientists is how entering the Jesuit order has given young men the chance to be a scientist regardless of family wealth or status. Athanasius Kircher, the youngest of nine children from a clerk’s family, became one of the most educated men of the 17th century. James Macelwane dropped out of high school to work on the family farm, but as a Jesuit, he became a key figure in modern geophysics.

These well-trained men were often missioned to exotic frontiers. In the late 1500s Fr. José de Acosta was able to write the first detailed study of the natural and social history of South America because he had been sent there – a trip as rare then as traveling into space today. And being a Jesuit provided instant credibility to a scientist, opening doors in certain circles that other contemporaries could not access. That is how, in the mid-1700s, Fr. Roger Boscovich was to change the Church’s stance on the heliocentric system.

But every advantage has its matching cost. The education of a Jesuit is quite lengthy, taking more than 12 years toward ordination, not counting the time needed for a Ph.D. Likewise, while a Jesuit scientist may be sent to wonderful places, he is also under obedience to leave them behind; after his pioneering work in South America, Fr. Acosta wound up sent back to Spain as the rector of a Jesuit university community.

A Jesuit scientist, supported by the order, is often not tied to a three-year funding cycle or a six-year tenure review. Thus we have the time – it may take decades – to catalog double stars, seismic velocities, or patterns in climate or terrestrial magnetic fields. Jesuits, for instance, invented the basic taxonomy of the plants of India.

But this sort of science often means that their work is unappreciated by their immediate peers. Famously in the 19th century, the Whig historian and politician Thomas Macaulay sneered that the Jesuits “appear to have discovered the precise point to which intellectual culture can be carried without risk of intellectual emancipation” and that being a Jesuit “has a tendency to suffocate, rather than to develop original genius.”

Even as Macaulay was writing those words, in Rome the Jesuit astronomer Angelo Secchi was revolutionizing astrophysics. Of course, Secchi’s work, well known and translated across the Continent, was never published in England. But more to the point, Macaulay’s idea of “original genius” misrepresents both the nature and the motivation of science. The unspoken assumption of someone like Macaulay is that one does science for the glory it brings upon the scientist. But Jesuits do science (or at least, we ought to) not for personal advancement, but for the love of the truth that science can reveal.

The glory that comes from science ought to be reflected on the Author of creation, not on the person who happens to have revealed some detail of that creation. Our scientific scholarship contributes to the good reputation of the Jesuit order in particular and the Church in general.

– Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory