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Father George Coyne, Vatican astronomer from Baltimore, dies at 87

Jesuit Father George V. Coyne, pictured in a Jan. 4, 2010, photo, was director of the Vatican Observatory for 28 years until his retirement in 2006. He died at age 87 in Syracuse, N.Y., Feb. 11, 2020. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Jesuit Father George V. Coyne, a 1951 graduate of Loyola Blakefield in Towson who led the Vatican Observatory as its director for 28 years, died Feb. 11 in Syracuse, New York. He was 87 and had been battling bladder cancer.

In a 2005 interview with the Catholic Review, Father Coyne remembered that his interest in astronomy and religious life was cultivated by the Jesuits he encountered in high school and then in seminary.

Father Coyne told the Review that when he was a young seminarian, books on science were considered a distraction. It was a professor of Greek who noticed his interest in the subject and provided him with a library card to take out science books in secret.

“He gave me a flashlight, and at lights out I had to pull a blanket over my head and open this book so I didn’t get caught reading this strange literature,” Father Coyne told the Review.

Father Coyne, ordained in 1966, said he became a Jesuit because of “hero worship.”

“Some people like the way Babe Ruth hits them out,” he said. “I just admired the way these Jesuits lived.”

One of nine children, Father Coyne grew up attending St. Brigid School in Baltimore and St. Cecilia School in Baltimore before heading to Loyola Blakefield on a scholarship. After graduating from Loyola Blakefield in 1951, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Wernersville, Pa. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a licentiate in philosophy from Fordham University, a doctorate in astronomy from Georgetown University and a licentiate in sacred theology from Woodstock College in Maryland.

Father Coyne served as Vatican Observatory director from 1978 to 2006, overseeing the modernization of its facilities, raising its profile in the science world and welcoming a new international generation of Jesuit astronomers to its staff. He first joined the observatory staff as an astronomer in 1969 and held the position until 2011.

He also served from 2007 to 2011 as director of the Vatican Observatory Foundation.

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican Observatory’s current director, recalled the first words from Father Coyne when he joined the observatory staff in 1993: “Do good science.”

“He created a space where we were all free to pursue that science,” Brother Consolmagno told Catholic News Service Feb. 13. “He acted as a firewall between us and the vagaries of the Vatican. He made us welcome and he made our collaborators and visitors welcome.”

Father Coyne, he said, created an atmosphere that attracted young astronomers from around the world and established a program for adjunct scholars who could be affiliated with the observatory, use its facilities and spread its name without living on site. The arrangement opened the door for women to join the staff, he said.

“George did a lot to promote women in astronomy,” Brother Consolmagno said, explaining how his predecessor initiated the biennial Vatican Observatory Summer School for astronomy graduate students. Nearly half of the students were women, and the program helped develop young astronomers in the developing world, he said.

Father Coyne told the Review in 2005 that his primary job at the Vatican was a researcher.

“We publish in international journals,” he said. “Only because of that are we qualified to enter into the science/faith dialogue. What we bring to that is our science with our background in philosophy and theology.”

Because the Vatican observatory is supported by the pope, it serves as “a clear sign that the church is interested in science,” Father Coyne said.

“John Paul II was extremely supportive right from the beginning,” he said. “He was interested in getting the church recognized as not against science because they were still hanging over the Galileo affair. He was interested in seeing that the observatory really was seen as a scientific institute of religious priests working in science.”

In the Review interview, Father Coyne was critical of the theory of intelligent design.

“The only way you can explain all the fossil data we have, all the genetic data, all the DNA data, all the various species on the surface of the Earth, is by some kind of evolution,” he said. “Obviously in any science there is a lot of healthy debate about the details. But an evolutionary history for the origin of all things in the universe is clear. And that’s science.”

The priest called intelligent design an interpretation of those scientific results.

“It says because we see this sweeping view, that someone designed this,” he said. “Well, that can be contested, very contested.”

Father Coyne likened God to a parent who works with the universe in a way that provides “necessary laws so it’s not complete chaos,” but “he allows the universe a certain creativity and dynamism of its own.”

Father Coyne’s work included the study of the lunar surface that helped guide NASA as it planned the Ranger missions and the Apollo crewed missions to the moon. He also conducted research on Mercury’s surface, interacting binary star systems that give off sudden bursts of intense energy, and Seyfert galaxies, a group of spiral galaxies with small and unusually bright star-like centers.

Father Coyne most recently was on the faculty of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, where he had taught astronomy while holding the McDevitt Distinguished Chair of Religious Philosophy since 2011.

The Jesuit was widely known for promoting conversations on the intersection of theology and science. Among his most widely known works was the 2002 book “Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning,” co-written by fellow Vatican Observatory astronomer Father Alessandro Omizzolo.

He was instrumental in organizing conferences in the 1990s on “God’s Action in the Universe” at Vatican Observatory headquarters in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, in collaboration with the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences of Berkeley, California.

In his scientific career, Father Coyne also served on the staff of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and held various positions with the lab while taking on additional responsibilities and eventually becoming its associate director in 1977.

His appointment as Vatican Observatory director in 1978 came under the brief tenure of Pope John Paul I. That same year he also became associate director of the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory. For a year beginning in 1979 he was acting director and head of the observatory and the university’s astronomy department.

Despite his lifetime of studying the stars, Father Coyne told the Review he never lost his ability to lean back in awe of the heavens.

“Of course in Arizona, you can almost pull the stars down there are just so many and the sky is so clear,” he said. “So, yes, I do marvel at them.”

A funeral Mass will be offered Feb. 17 in Panasci Chapel at Le Moyne College. Burial will be in the Jesuit cemetery in Wernersville.

Catholic News Service contributed to this article.

Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org.