I first met Fr. Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti back in 2011 at St. Edmunds’s College, Cambridge, during a conference to celebrate the eightieth anniversary of Fr. George Lemaitre’s "Letter to Nature" outlining what later became celebrated as the Big Bang theory. At the time, Tanzella-Nitti was working on a monumental four-volume series for students and teachers on how to discuss Christian faith in light of modern science.
His new book, Scientific Perspectives in Fundamental Theology: Understanding Christian Faith in the Age of Scientific Reason, just out from Claremont Press, is the first presentation in English of the key issues discussed in the first two volumes of his Italian series. He hopes it will be a useful resource at both the undergraduate and graduate levels of study in theology, coming as it does from a committed Christian with a solid background as a research scientist.
Tanzella-Nitti is currently a professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical University of Santa Croce, Rome, and a priest in the Prelature of Opus Dei. But he began his academic career in science as a researcher in radio astronomy at the University of Bologna, and then as an astronomer at the Observatory in Turin. He is now a member of the Vatican Observatory.
“I got my degree in astronomy at the University of Bologna in 1977, discussing a thesis on the optical variability of quasars,” he told me when we connected via email. “At that time, more than forty years ago, we knew very little about the central energy machine which let quasars be the most powerful optical sources in the universe. The study of their optical variability was a good way to discriminate among different models of energy production: clusters of supernovae, spinors, black holes, etc.”
Since that time, he said, we’ve learned that quasars are the active nuclei at the center of very distant galaxies, and there are black holes pouring out energy at the center of these nuclei.
“We also know that their very large optical variability is due to jets of plasma which are produced in the accretion disks around black holes and points right along the line of sight of the observer.”
I wondered whether his interest in theology ran parallel to his research, or whether it came much earlier. In fact, he told me, it was the reverse.
“Up to the age of sixteen,” he said, “I could consider myself a non-believer, perhaps an agnostic, but in the less educated sense of the term. Then I came in contact with Christian believers who impressed me with the sincere testimony of their lives.” From that point, he said, he began to study theology privately. Opus Dei became an important part of his faith journey, and after about twenty years, he realized a vocation to the priesthood within the prelature.
He also realized a devotion to teaching at Santa Croce. “Initially I was in charge of teaching dogmatic theology,” he said, “but soon afterwards I was asked to move towards fundamental theology.” This change gave him the opportunity to approach the studies of science and theology from his own perspective, at a time when the topic of religion and science was mainly the focus of books and conferences held in the English-speaking world.