After joining the Society of Jesus when he was 18, and earning degrees in mathematics, philosophy, theology, and astronomy (the latter being a doctorate from Georgetown University, the former B.S. degrees from Fordham University), Coyne became a Roman Catholic priest. His goal in life: to lead the reconciliation of theology and science. He set the ground rules clearly: “One thing the Bible is not,” he said in 1994, “is a scientific textbook. Scripture is made up of myth, of poetry, of history. But it is simply not teaching science.” Along the way he performed spectrophotometric studies of the lunar surface, doing research at Harvard, and lecturing for the National Science Foundation. Coyne split his time between the Vatican Observatory and teaching at the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, lecturing at the latter’s Astronomy department. In 1978, Pope John Paul I appointed Coyne as the Director of the Vatican Observatory, and the University essentially matched that promotion with one of its own, making Coyne the head of its observatory too, as well as the chair of its Department of Astronomy. On the side, he urged the Church to take more responsibility for its prosecution of Galileo in the early 17th century.
In his lectures and writings, Coyne was adamant that Darwinian evolution, including its randomness, is compatible with Catholic teaching. He publicly disagreed with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who published an article arguing the other side. “If they respect the results of modern science,” Coyne wrote in reply, “and indeed the best of modern biblical research, religious believers must move away from the notion of a dictator God or a designer God, a Newtonian God who made the universe as a watch that ticks along regularly.” He also weighed in on other scientific topics that overlapped his Catholicism. “‘Intelligent design’ isn’t science even though it pretends to be,” he lectured. “If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science.” After retiring in 2006, Coyne continued to be active, for instance noting that Catholics and other Christians should not have problems reconciling faith with scientific topics such as the multiverse, the Big Bang, stellar nucleosynthesis, extraterrestrial life, the geological time scale, abiogenesis, symbiogenesis, evolution, neuroscientific and psychological studies of consciousness, or evolutionary psychology, and co-authored the book Comprehensible Universe: The Interplay of Science and Theology in 2008. Fr. Coyne died February 11 in Syracuse, N.Y., from bladder cancer. He was 87.