Who was Pope Luciani?

Albino Luciani , Pope John Paul I, was the first pope born in the 20th century. His reign of 33 days is among the shortest in the two thousand years of papal history. He was known in Italy as Papa Luciani and was also widely remembered as ‘the smiling pope’.

Pope Luciani, John Paul I, in the Papal Gardens at Castel Gandolfo Vatican Observatory

Quite far from being a ‘prisoner of the Vatican’, Pope Luciani was fully engaged with the daily news reading several newspapers each morning before starting his day, including one from Venice. Luciani would speak the Venetian dialect with those Venetian sisters in his court to make them more comfortable, and the smiling pope’s humour was always evident to those around him. He would often joke with the sisters when seeing his picture in the daily papers: “But you see how they got me”, lamenting the wrong take of his pic. 

John Paul I was a skilled communicator and writer. His book Illustrissimi, written while he was a cardinal and Patriarch of Venice, is a witty and thoughtful series of letters to diverse historical and fictional persons including Jesus, King David, Figaro the Barber, Empress Maria Theresa, Pinocchio, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Christopher Marlowe. 

This School of Catholic Science Thinking is inspired by Pope Luciani’s thought-leadership, his pastoral genius and personal example and so we revere him as our Patron.

This course is curated as a School of Thinking project to commemorate the memory of Fr George Coyne who died in 2020 and whose work we teach. The Luciani School is an open school – anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Fr George Coyne SJ, Papal Astronomer, in the Vatican Observatory at Castel Gandolfo


If you wish you can complete the reading of the text, the links and the book and also complete the watching of the the streaming masterclass which should take you all up a total of about 3.5 to 4 hours. You can do it once or repeat many times and all in your own time and place. You may invite anyone who may be interested. On completion, you may ask for a Certificate of Catholic Science Thinking from the School.

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What is Catholic Science Thinking?

Perhaps first it’s useful to say what it’s not. Catholic Science Thinking is not thinking about Catholic Science. Why? Because there’s no such thing as ‘Catholic Science’. Science is science. There’s no Catholic Science or Japanese Science or Silicon Valley Science and so on. Science is universal. It’s either science or it’s not science.

‘Catholic Thinking’ is a human knowledge tradition. It’s a very successful tradition. It’s one of humanity’s great global religions. It’s been around a lot longer than ‘science thinking’ which is a relatively new development in human thinking.

Catholic means … universal. Therefore it means diversity. Diversity means survival. Survival means growth.

Catholic is the opposite of monolithic. There are many differing ways to be a Catholic. There exists now a great matrix of Catholic thinkers all around the world. You can find Catholic thinkers with a Judaic emphasis on tradition, law and judgement. Perhaps Cardinal George Pell of Australia is such a thinker. You can also find innovative thinkers like theologian Fr Hans Kung in a different part of the universal matrix. This broad diversity has helped the Catholic Church survive for over two thousand years. Many Catholics believe this expansive diversity is evidence of the genius of the Holy Spirit.

The Catholic Church, for example, now based in the Vatican City State,  is the most successful human memeplex ever invented, curated and replicated over two thousand years of continuity. What comes a long way second? One thousand years of The Crown, perhaps.

Catholic covers a fertile memeplex. It’s eclectic. It’s broad. It’s flexible. It’s coherent. It’s a valuable collection of diverse ideas and themes and narratives that have survived and evolved and stood the test of time.

The Catholic tradition is deeply held in trust because, for those thinkers who have the gift and conviction of faith, it is transcendent and divine. It is personally inspired by the triune God. 

• Number of baptised Catholics by country (2010)

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Human religious traditions 


In The World’s Religions Ninian Smart, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster, writes about the rich cultural diversity of human religious traditions:

‘So long as humans are brought up in different paths, so they will see the world differently, and for each path some things will seem natural and right and others not. But the paths cross. We can benefit from that. For example: we can see social justice, which Marxists struggle for; human freedom, which liberals emphasise; love of God and fellow humans, which Christianity preaches; brotherhood, which Islam promotes; calm and mysticism, which go with Buddhism; devotion and pluralism, which Hinduism points to; harmony with nature, which Taoism commends; ‘the cultivation of interpersonal behaviour, which is a lesson from Confucianism; holism in life, which we find in Africa; finding meaning through suffering, which Judaism has had to emphasise; the importance of inner sincerity, which we find among the Sikhs. These and many other spiritual and moral values are not, of course, mutually incompatible’.

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CST – Catholic Science Thinking

The Scientific Revolution is about 350 years old since the end of the Renaissance in the 16th Century or a bit earlier if we start from Galileo. So when we consider and explore and discuss Catholic Science Thinking (CST) we are talking about Catholic scientists and their thoughts, their ideas, their methods of thinking and their personal narratives. We are also talking about how their Catholic tradition, their religion, has impacted on their ideas, how it has cultivated their imagination and how their Catholic thinking has inspired their science thinking and how they do their science.

The Pope’s Astrophysicist

For example, in 1978 Pope Luciani appointed the mathematician, philosopher and astrophysicist, Fr George Coyne SJ, to be Papal Astronomer and Head of the Vatican Observatory which illustrious scientific post he held for many years until 2006. 

As head of the Observatory’s research group at the University of Arizona in Tuscon USA, Coyne was doing science based on a technique called polarization studies; using the polarization of light to study the distribution of matter around young stars – stars that have just been born, or are in the process of being born. He found that matter tends to be distributed in a disc around the new born star resembling the same process of the birth of the planets about the Sun. He was fascinated by the possibility that a young star may have the physical conditions to perhaps develop a planetary system. Literally, the birth of a star and its planets. 

Here, in 2014, Fr Coyne gives a TEDx Talk called, “We are all made of stardust”

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What is science?

Science is a human way of thinking. It’s peculiar to humans because of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) found in humans and not in other species. It’s not that other species do not conduct experiments by trial and error. They do. But only humans measure, record, publish and peer-review their experiments according to a scientific method.

Science thinking is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural world following a systematic methodology based on evidence. 

Science uses a set of tools and systems for studying the natural world through observation, measurement and experimentation. There are three main branches of science: physical science, Earth science and life science.

• Physical science is the study of inanimate natural objects and the laws that govern them. It includes physics, chemistry, and astronomy. In physics, we try to break down the whole universe into a set of fundamental, mathematical laws that explain the smallest things in the universe and the largest. In chemistry, we study the composition, structure, changes and properties of matter: focusing on the scale of chemical bonds and reactions. And in astronomy, we study celestial objects, including the origin of the planet on which we live.

• Earth science is the study of the Earth and the physical components that make it up: the constitution of the atmosphere, the seas, the land, and how those things are tied together. It includes geology, oceanography, meteorology and paleontology. 

• Life Science includes the study of biology, medicine, anthropology, and ecology; living organisms and their organization and relationships to each other and their environment. Also called bioscience.

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Catholic Science Thinkers

Catholic Science Thinkers are scientists (or science thinkers) who are or were also Catholics. They may have been scientists because they were Catholics or in spite of being Catholics. Here, for example, are ten Catholic Science Thinkers and some of their thoughts:

Pope Luciani

The Republic of Venice used to boast that, in the space of three months, it could know all the events of the Mediterranean. We see the astronauts, from the distance of a few feet, at the very moment they land on the moon. Unfortunately the news almost swamps us with its frequency and abundance. It doesn’t give us time to reflect: we are so constantly amazed that gradually we lose our capacity for being surprised at anything, and we don’t enjoy even beautiful things.

Fr George Coyne

Not even we scientists reflect enough on the amazing achievments of modern science. Through physics, biology, chemistry and mathematics we’re able to put the universe in our heads. We are made of stardust and, in us, the universe is thinking about itself.

Galileo Galilei

Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed.

Gregor Mendel

My scientific studies have afforded me great gratification; and I am convinced that it will not be long before the whole world acknowledges the results of my work.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi

(It is) the right of women to study the fine arts and the sublime sciences

Louis Pasteur

The idea of God is a form of the idea of the Infinite. As long as the mystery of the Infinite weighs on human thought, temples will be erected for the worship of the Infinite, whether God be called ‘Brahma,’ ‘Allah,’ ‘Jehovah,’ or ‘Jesus’; and on the pavement of those temples men will be seen kneeling, prostrate, annihilated, in the thought of the Infinite.

Sir Alexander Fleming

It is the lone worker who makes the first advance in a subject: the details may be worked out by a team, but the prime idea is due to the enterprise, thought, and perception of an individual.

Professor Laura Bassi … 

Fr Bernard Lonergan

Discovery is new beginning. It is the origin of new rules that supplement, or even supplant, the old. Genius is creative. It is genius precisely because it disregards established routines, because it originates the novelties that will be the routines of the future. Were there rules for discovery, then discoveries would be mere conclusions.

Sir Gus Nossal

I am most proud about the science I’ve done with my own two hands because I have always thought that even if your life path takes you into a leadership position outside the area you were known for, your legitimacy remains in that first field.

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CST Certificate Assignments: Read and Watch …


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Religion. Faith. Science.

A Masterclass with George Coyne and Richard Dawkins

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If you wish you can complete the reading of the text, the links and the book and also complete the watching of the the streaming masterclass which should take you all up a total of about 3.5 to 4 hours. You can do it once or repeat many times and all in your own time and place. You may invite anyone who may be interested. On completion, you may ask for a Certificate of Catholic Science Thinking from the School.

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• See Also

The Pope’s Astronomer

American research astronomer and physicist, Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ, is the current Director of the Vatican Observatory, and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation

See two other related videos – Papal Space Rocks at https://youtu.be/5OI4wb2XIZc​ and The Pope’s Telescopes at https://youtu.be/ccoGKAL6Qas


“God Particle” Physicist, Fabiola Gianotti, Academician, Pontifical Academy of Sciences

In 2020, Pope Francis appointed “God particle” physicist Fabiola Gianotti to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Fabiola Gianotti, Director-General of CERN, is a particle physicist working at high-energy accelerators. In her scientific career, she has made significant contributions to several experiments at CERN, including ATLAS at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). Here she presents her credentials to the Academy …

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