Pope Leo XIII established the first Vatican observatory in 1891, behind the dome of St. Peter's basilica, and the Jesuits--the church's scholars--have always run it.
The observatory has been relocated twice--first to the pope's summer residence in the Alban Hills in 1935, when the lights of Rome began to encroach upon the darkness required to view distant stars, then again to Arizona in 1980 when ambient light began to flood even rural Italian skies.
The Vatican Observatory is on Mt. Graham, 100 miles northeast of Tucson. Coyne's staff includes six researchers and four observational researchers. Time spent on the mountain is minimal. A typical astronomer might observe four nights a month, a total of three weeks a year. More time is spent analyzing data gleaned from observation: One night's work requires an average of one month to digest.
The observatory is thought to afford the best viewing in the continental United States, pleasing Coyne, who saw to it that the site was fitted with a plaque, inscribed in Latin, that reads in part: "May whoever searches here night and day the far reaches of space use it joyfully with the help of God."
Coyne's clerical collar has not insulated him from the threat of reduced funding faced by virtually all academics.
He, his staff and his facility could be downsized at any time. Coyne serves at the pleasure of the current Vatican administration, and the next pope naturally will bring with him his own interests and pet projects. An observatory in far-off Arizona could easily be flung out like an old rug.
"There's a saying in Rome," Coyne said, his eyes narrowing in amusement. " 'There's nothing as dead as a dead pope.' That's very true. Everything dies with him. The next pope . . . can do whatever he wants."
The church, like many institutions, doesn't easily embrace something it can't control, such as scientific inquiry.
"You have the contrast of encouraging research and still a bit of suspicion," Coyne said. "I think the suspicion comes from the top down, and the encouragement comes from the bottom up. The hierarchical institutional church . . . is protective by its very nature."
Coyne knows that his observatory's $1-million annual budget is not a strain on the Vatican's resources. Still, he is preparing a fund-raising drive, a prospect he greets with distaste. Extra money will not come from the Vatican, which has told Coyne that it fully supports his efforts to augment his Advanced Technology Telescope's ability, but will not increase its funding.
Still, Coyne's abiding interest is in the stars and in heaven. He believes in proving his science and living his faith.
"I did not come to believe in God through any scientific knowledge," Coyne said. "I believe in God because God gave himself to me. Not in any miraculous way. I grew up and I questioned this and that. I thought, 'Could this be true?' I never came to a point where there was any need to reject what was given. . .
"Once I am a believer and I start doing science, I find that not only does science not challenge my faith, but that it enriches it . . . it gives me more to think about as far as God being the source of all this. Faith goes beyond reason. It's transcendent."