The Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Founded in 1936

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences was founded in 1936 but its origins go back more than 300 years before this date. The founding of the Accademia dei Lincei at the beginning of the 17th century can be considered as the first step in the process.

The Accademia dei Lincei was founded in 1603 by Federico Cesi, the son of the Duke of Acquasparta, and a member of an important family from Rome. Cesi was interested in science, particularly in botany, and he was the leader of a group of four young men who set up the Academy. Cesi died in 1630 and the Academy closed down. In 1745 a group of scientists in Rimini refounded the Academy, but it only functioned for a very short time. Padre Feliciano Scarpellini founded a private Academy in Rome in 1795 which he named the 'Lincei'. This was a much more successful venture bringing together a group of mathematicians and scientists working in the Papal States. Pope Gregory XVI suggested in 1838 refounding the Academy as 'Accademia Pontificia dei Nuovi Lincei' (The Pontifical Academy of the New Lynxes), but this did not happen until 1847 when Pope Pius IX revived the Academy. New statutes were drawn up stipulating that the Academy should have thirty resident members and forty correspondent members.

Revolts occurred in the Papal States in 1849 and a short-lived Roman Republic was established. This Roman Republic tried to expel the Academy but it managed to keep its headquarters with skilled political footwork. During the later moves towards Italian unification the Papal States proved an problem because Catholic foreign powers would intervene to protect them. However, the Papal States of Emilia, Umbria, and Marche voted to join the Italian kingdom after Austria's defeat in 1859 then, when French troops withdrew from Rome in 1870, Italian forces took the area around the Vatican. The Academy was split into two different institutions, one taking the secular name indicating royal patronage the 'Reale Accademia dei Lincei' (which later became the present 'Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei' with its headquarters in Palazzo Corsini alla Lungara). The second institution formed in the split retained the ecclesiastical name becoming the 'Accademia Pontificia dei Nuovi Lincei'. Its headquarters was moved to the Casina Pio IV villa in the Vatican Gardens in 1922. This villa, designed by Pirro Ligorio, had been completed in 1561 as a summer residence for Pope Pius IV and surrounded by the trees and lawns of the Vatican gardens. The Casina Pio IV is a well-preserved treasury of 16th century frescoes, stucco reliefs, mosaics and fountains which was extended in the 1930s [2]:-
On 20 December 1931, the then President of the Accademia Pontificia dei Nuovi Lincei, Giuseppe Gianfranceschi, announced the plans for the enlargement of the Casina. Architect Giuseppe Momo, to whom the project was commissioned, brilliantly solved the problem of building a new wing on the sloping plot without disrupting the shape of Ligorio's original Casina. Pope Pius XI was able to inaugurate the new extension, comprising a gallery and the great hall where the Plenary Sessions of the Academy are held, on 17 December 1933.
Pope Pius XI renewed and reconstituted the Academy in 1936, and gave it its present name of Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The Pope delivered the motu proprio (an edict issued by the Pope personally to the Roman Catholic Church) "In multis solaciis" which states:-
Amongst the many consolations with which divine Goodness has wished to make happy the years of our Pontificate, I am happy to place that of our having being able to see not a few of those who dedicate themselves to the studies of the sciences mature their attitude and their intellectual approach towards religion. Science, when it is real cognition, is never in contrast with the truth of the Christian faith. Indeed, as is well known to those who study the history of science, it must be recognized on the one hand that the Roman Pontiffs and the Catholic Church have always fostered the research of the learned in the experimental field as well, and on the other hand that such research has opened up the way to the defence of the deposit of supernatural truths entrusted to the Church. ... We promise again that it is our strongly-held intention, that the 'Pontifical Academicians', through their work and our Institution, work ever more and ever more effectively for the progress of the sciences. Of them we do not ask anything else, since this praiseworthy intent and this noble work in the service of the truth is what we expect of them.
The statutes drawn up in 1936 state that the aim of the Academy is:-
... to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences and the study of epistemological problems relating thereto.
One interesting point should be made here. All academies are essentially international bodies but they are based in a particular country and operate in that country primarily to serve the needs of the country, distinguishing its members according as to whether they are based mainly in that country. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is, we believe, unique in that although it functions from a building in the Vatican, nevertheless, it is a truly international body which makes no distinctions based on the nationality or country in which a person works. In other words, anyone can become a full member and there is no concept of foreign member. One consequence of this is that the Academy has had a large number of full members who have been awarded a Nobel Prize. The number to date (2018) appears to be 43, including Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac and Erwin Schrödinger, all of whom have biographies in this archive.

Of course there is another point here in that all academies strive to be independent from political pressure and it might appear that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences would be controlled by the Roman Catholic Church but Pius XII stressed the independence of the Academy in an address he gave in 1940 [1]:-
To you noble champions of human arts and disciplines the Church acknowledges complete freedom in method and research ... .
The first President of the Academy was Agostino Gemelli (1878-1959) who was appointed to this role on 28 October 1936. Gemelli, born in Milan, was a Franciscan friar who was also a physician and a psychologist. He was the founder and first rector of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan. There were a number of mathematicians and astronomers among those nominated for the Council on 28 October 1936. These include: Giuseppe Armellini (24 October 1887 - 16 July 1958), Professor of Astronomy at the University of Rome and Director of the Astronomy Observatory in Rome; Emilio Bianchi (26 September 1875 - 11 September 1941), Professor of Astronomy and Geodesic Science at the University of Milan and Director of the Astronomy Observatory in Milan; Ugo Amaldi (18 April 1875 - 11 November 1957), Professor of Algebraic and Infinitesimal Mathematical Analysis at the University of Rome; Marcello Boldrini (9 February 1890 - 5 March 1969), Professor of Statistics at the University of Rome; and Enrico Pistolesi (2 December 1889 - 29 February 1968), Professor of Mechanics Applied to Machines and Aeronautical Construction, University of Pisa. A famous mathematician nominated for the Council on 5 April 1940 was Francesco Severi (13 April 1879 - 8 December 1961), President of the Istituto Nazionale di Alta Matematica and Professor of Higher Geometry at the University of Rome.

On 22 November 1951 Pope Pius XII received members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences for a week long meeting on seismology [8]:-
According to a widely circulated version of events today, Pope Pius XII supposedly claimed in a discussion held at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in November 1951 that the recent astronomical discoveries confirmed the initial page of the Book of Genesis when the latter describes the creation of the universe as a Fiat lux. In essence, science, according to the Pontiff's judgment, in those years was providing evidence for the existence of God. In a personal meeting expressly requested a short time later, Lemaître supposedly corrected the Pontiff on his errors, telling him he was mistaken in making "concordist" comments on science and the Holy Scripture.
The address that Pope Pius XII gave to the Academicians at this time was almost certainly drafted by Edmund Whittaker who had been inducted into the Academy by Pope Pius XI when it was founded in 1936. Georges Lemaître had been inducted into the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on the same date, the 28 October 1936.

The first President Agostino Gemelli died on 15 July 1959 and, on 19 March 1960, the second President was installed. The second President was the Belgium mathematician and astronomer Georges Lemaître. On the occasion of the centenary of Albert Einstein's birth, Pope John Paul II addressed the Academy and quoted words by Lemaître from his time as President (see [1]):-
Does the Church need science? Certainly not, the cross and the gospel are sufficient for her. But nothing human is alien to the Christian. How could the Church have failed to take an interest in the most noble of the strictly human occupations: the search for truth?
In this address Pope John Paul II said [1]:-
In this Academy which is yours and mine, believing and non-believing scientists collaborate, concurring in the search for scientific truth ...
The Pope then again quoted words by Lemaître from his time as President (see [1]):-
Both believing scientists and non-believing scientists endeavour to decipher the palimpsest of nature which has been built in a rather complex way, where the traces of the different stages of the long evolution of the world have been overlaid on one another and confused. The believer, perhaps, has the advantage of knowing that the enigma has a solution, that the underlying writing is, in the final analysis, the work of an intelligent being, and that thus the problem posed by nature has been posed to be solved and that its difficulty is without doubt proportionate to the present or future capacity of mankind. This, perhaps, will not give him new resources for the investigation engaged in, but it will contribute to maintaining in him that healthy optimism without which a sustained effort cannot be kept up for long.
Georges Lemaître died on 20 June 1966 and the third President of the Academy was appointed on 15 January 1968. This was Daniel Joseph Kelly O'Connell who had studied mathematics and physics at the University of Dublin and, after being ordained and studying astronomy at Harvard College Observatory with Harlow Shapley, was appointed to the Riverview Observatory in Sydney, Australia, in 1933. In 1952 he was appointed as director of the Vatican Observatory. He retired as director of the Vatican Observatory in 1970 but continued to serve as President of the Academy until 15 January 1972.

In 1976 Pope Paul VI updated the statutes of the Academy and, with minor exceptions, these still hold today. The minor exceptions relate to the number of members, set at 70 in 1976 but increased to 80 by Pope John Paul II on 8 January 1986. Also on 20 November 1995 Pope John Paul II increased the number of members of the Council from 5 to 7. The Councillors serve for a term of four years. These statutes state [7]:
The aim of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is to promote the progress of the mathematical, physical and natural sciences and the study of epistemological problems related thereto.

For the attainment of its ends the Academy:
  1. holds plenary sessions of the Academicians;

  2. organizes meetings to promote the progress of sciences and the solution of important scientific-technical problems, which are fundamental for the development of mankind;

  3. promotes scientific investigations and researches which can contribute, in the appropriate quarters, to the exploration of moral, social and spiritual problems;

  4. arranges conferences and celebrations;

  5. takes care of the publication of the Proceedings of its own meetings, of the results of the scientific researches and studies of the Academicians and of other scientists.
With the object of promoting scientific research the Academy every two years awards the Pius XI Medal to a young scientist of international reputation.
The Pius XI Medal, first awarded in 1962, is presented by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences every two years to a young scientist under the age of 45, chosen by the Academy for his or her exceptional promise.

It is important to understand that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences does not restrict membership to those professing the Christian faith. To illustrate this we note that Stephen Hawking was named a member of the Academy by Pope Paul VI in 1968. Hawking was presented with the Academy's Pius XI Gold Medal in 1975. He addressed the Academy on "The Origin of the Universe" at a session in 2016. The fact that Hawking stated many times that he did not believe in God did not stop the Academy inviting him to become a member and giving him their top award.

Let us end our description of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by mentioning a number of mathematicians/astronomers who have served on the Council after the initial appointments we mentioned above. These include: Hermann A Brück (15 August 1905 - 4 March 2000), Professor of Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, Scotland, nominated 5 April 1955; Louis de Broglie (15 August 1892 - 19 March 1987), Honorary Professor of Physics, Faculté des Sciences, Paris, France and Honorary Perpetual Secretary, Academy of Sciences, Paris, nominated 5 April 1955; Daniel Joseph Kelly O'Connell (25 July 1896 - 15 October 1982), Vatican Observatory, Vatican City, nominated 24 September 1964; Stanislaw Lojasiewicz (9 October 1926 -13 November 2002), Professor of Mathematics, Jagiellonian University, Cracow, Poland, nominated 27 January 1983; Ennio de Giorgi (8 February 1928 - 25 October 1996), Professor of Mathematical Analysis, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy, Nominated 12 May 1981; Paul Marie Germain (28 August 1920 - 26 February 2009), Professor Emeritus of Mechanics at the University of Pierre et Marie Curie and Secrétaire perpétuel honoraire of the Academy of Sciences, Paris, nominated 9 June 1986, Martin John Rees (23 June 1942 -), Professor of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, England, nominated 25 June 1990; and Luis Ángel Caffarelli (8 December 1948 -), Professor of Mathematics, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA, nominated 2 August 1994.

Visit the society website.

References (show)

  1. Discourses of the Popes from Pius XI to John Paul to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Vatican City, 1986).
  2. Casina Pio IV, Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
  3. Council, Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
  4. Goals, Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
  5. History, Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
  6. Pius XI Medal, Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
  7. Statutes, Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
  8. G Tanzella-Nitti, Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion & Science

Last Updated September 2018