Theological Personhood

Some of you may have seen the story bouncing around Facebook and the like lately regarding some scientists declaring that dolphins and whales were sufficiently intelligent and self-aware to warrant a legally-protected personhood.

Some people at CAF have already started a thread on that here:

In that discussion though, I was surprised to see many hold the belief that something that is not recognizably human, however intelligent cannot possibly be a “person.” It made me think that perhaps the theological sense of personhood might be understood too narrowly.

I was wondering what this would mean in the event that we encountered intelligent beings from elsewhere in the universe, and how the Church would approach it theologically. I’ve seen the stories about the Vatican saying it’s permissible to speculate about extraterrestrial life and such, but I was curious to know what the posters here thought.

I found this thread already:

But it seems like it got derailed off the original question into a question of whether extraterrestrial beings could or even should exist.

So to put the question again, assuming that 1) there are extraterrestrial beings, 2) they are of at least human intelligence and cultural sophistication, how should we as Christians regard them?

Obviously they would not look like us, but is physical form really all that’s entailed in being made in God’s own image? In fact, one might argue that the eternal existence of God is not tied to human form but rather a spiritual one, albeit that took on human form in Christ.

It’s an interesting question, and one that actually is not without precedent. When the Europeans encountered the native peoples of the Americas in the 16th century, for them it was no different than the idea of us discovering a civilization on another planet. To the point that there were intense theological debates about what to do with the natives? Were they human? Did they have souls? The question was so profound that it required papal intervention to resolve. In 1537, Pope Paul III issued the bull ‘Sublimus Dei’ declaring that native Americans were rational beings and possessed eternal souls:

"The enemy of the human race, who opposes all good deeds in order to bring men to destruction, beholding and envying this, invented a means never before heard of, by which he might hinder the preaching of God’s word of Salvation to the people: he inspired his satellites who, to please him, have not hesitated to publish abroad that the Indians of the West and the South, and other people of whom We have recent knowledge should be treated as dumb brutes created for our service, pretending that they are incapable of receiving the Catholic Faith.

We, who, though unworthy, exercise on earth the power of our Lord and seek with all our might to bring those sheep of His flock who are outside into the fold committed to our charge, consider, however, that the Indians are truly men and that they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith but, according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it."

So what are the thoughts here?

I would be under the impression that if in doubt any species of creature that has human level intelligence should be treated as though it is a species of persons, if only to avoid the possible accidental situation of treating persons as less than they are.

Personhood doesn’t stem from intelligence, but it is, among a species, one of the few outward signs we can see. In the absence of a “immortal soul-o-meter,” we don’t have much else to go by unless and until the Church makes a pronouncement.

I do not think any non-human on earth qualifies.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit