Father Michal Heller, 72, a Polish priest-cosmologist and a onetime associate of Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, the future pope, was named March 12 as the winner of the Templeton Prize.
The prize, the world's largest annual monetary award given to an individual, is worth 820,000 pounds sterling (US$1.65 million). The award is given for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities.
Father Heller, a philosophy professor at the Pontifical Academy of Theology in Krakow, Poland, was honored for 40-plus years of work developing "sharply focused and strikingly original concepts on the origin and cause of the universe," according to the announcement on the prize.
The priest, who for much of his life worked under the strictures of communism, is an international figure among cosmologists and physicists. He has written more than 30 books and nearly 400 papers on such topics as the unification of general relativity and quantum mechanics. But he also has, through a "theology of science," placed the Christian view of the universe "within a broader cosmological context."
Father Heller said he would use the prize money to create the Copernicus Center to further research and education in science and theology as an academic discipline. The center would be run in conjunction with the Pontifical Academy of Theology and the Jagiellonian University, Poland's oldest university, established in 1364.
"My hope is that it will start operating a year from now," Father Heller said in a March 10 telephone interview with Catholic News Service from New York City, where he accepted the prize two days later at the Church Center for the United Nations.
"In Poland we are accustomed to doing something with nothing. ... Under communism we did everything illegally without money," he said.
As a young boy, Father Heller had an aversion to school.
"I did not like it, but I did not hate it," he told CNS. "I was always an individualist and in school you must conform to general rules of behavior, which was something painful to me. I liked to study, I liked to be taught, but I did not like to be one of many. But on the other hand, I liked my friends when they came to my house after the classes. We had a terrific time."
Father Heller, like the then-Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, who would become Pope John Paul II, found ways to challenge communist rule in Poland. After the communists expelled the theology faculty from the Academy of Theology, Father Heller helped organize an underground theology school that "was not legal, but not quite illegal," he said.
When the future pope was a young priest, he added, "he liked to ski in the mountains. Some of his ski companions were young Krakow physicists. They would start discussing some matters of science, philosophy and religion, and they continued talking about these things in private houses. When he became bishop of Krakow, he continued those discussions between scientists and philosophers."
Archbishop Wojtyla later was able to give the Academy of Theology more protection from communist interference by getting the Vatican to designate it as a pontifical academy.
The priest said Pope John Paul "grasped a little bit of the scientific mentality, and that was an extraordinary thing for a pope."
The pontiff invited Father Heller to give a talk at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy.
Father Heller said he prepared remarks on elemental formations, recalling that he told the pope: "Biological evolution is just one fiber of this process. As you know, our mechanical elements were formed, some of them in the first minute after the big bang, in very hot and high-density conditions. Hydrogen or helium were formed at that time. Other chemical elements were produced in the interior of the heavy stars. But in order to produce carbon, we need three or four generations of stars."
"If you look at your own hand," Father Heller told CNS, "it is composed out of atoms which participate in the life of three or four generations of stars. We are really made out of gases, or if you use a biblical metaphor, out of the clay of the universe."
Although he was visiting the United States for only the third time, this time to accept the Templeton Prize, Father Heller is familiar with the intermittent controversy in U.S. academic circles on teaching Darwinian evolution versus teaching intelligent design, or creationism, because he said the debate crops up from time to time in Poland.
Father Heller said intelligent design advocates contend "there is an opposition between God, who is the creator of everything, and the theory of evolution, which explains that random events, chance events, play an important role in the evolutionary process. They claim that we must assume (it is) intelligent design, and not chance, that shapes the outcome."
"My point of view is that it is a grave, serious theological error -- I underline that grave, serious theological error. It revives old Manichean heresies that claim that there are two major, great principles -- the principle of God which is good, and the principle of evil -- and they are fighting with each other," he said, that "God is one side, and chance is regarded as a rival of God."
But "God is also the God of chance events," he said. "From what our point of view is, chance -- from God's point of view, is ... his structuring of the universe."
As an example, Father Heller said, "birth is a chance event, but people ascribe that to God. People have much better theology than adherents of intelligent design. The chance event is just a part of God's plan."