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Alien Life Out There
Vatican Astronomer’s Take
BY EDWARD PENTIN
May 25-31, 2008 Issue | Posted 5/20/08 at 1:27 PM
VATICAN CITY — Extraterrestrials: Do they exist?
The head of the Vatican Observatory thinks there’s a good chance they do, and that their existence would be in keeping with the faith.
In a May 14 interview with the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano May 14, headlined “The Extraterrestrial Is My Brother,” astronomer Jesuit Father José Gabriel Funes said that according to his “scientific judgment,” the existence of extraterrestrials is a “possibility.”
“Astronomers contend that the universe is made up of a hundred billion galaxies, each of which is composed of hundreds of billions of stars,” he said. “Many of these, or almost all of them, could have planets. [So] how can you exclude that life has developed somewhere else?”
The Vatican Observatory is one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world, and has its headquarters at the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo just outside Rome.
Its main research telescopes, however, are located at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Father Funes, who took over as head of the observatory in 2006, denied that the existence of other intelligent life-forms would contradict Christian belief.
“As there exist many creatures on earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God,” he said. “This doesn’t contradict our faith because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God. To say it as St. Francis [of Assisi], if we consider some earthly creatures as ‘brother’ and ‘sister,’ why couldn’t we also talk of an ‘extraterrestrial brother’? He would also belong to creation.”
The Argentine Jesuit explained that scientists studying the question of extraterrestrial life have made much progress in recent years, and will soon be able to identify if other planets have the conditions necessary for life. He added that, in theory, forms of life could also exist in parts of the universe without oxygen and hydrogen.
When asked how aliens could be redeemed, Father Funes referred to the Gospel parable of the lost sheep. Aliens, he speculated, could already be redeemed because they could have remained in full friendship with God, while the human race “could be precisely the lost sheep, the sinners that need the shepherd.”
But what if they were sinners like us? Father Funes replied that just as Jesus is believed to have come to save mankind, so he was sure that they, “in some way, would have the chance to enjoy God’s mercy.”
Father Funes’ comments are not novel: Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a fellow astronomer at the observatory, discussed similar themes in a booklet he wrote for the Catholic Truth Society in 2005.
The question has also been debated within the Church since the Middle Ages and was discussed by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, whose fictional “Space Trilogy” featured extraterrestrial beings.
In an essay Lewis wrote in 1958, originally called “Will We Lose God in Outer Space?”and later retitled “Religion and Rocketry,” he argued that the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life would not necessarily contradict Christian theology.
And like Father Funes, Lewis said it was possible that such beings, if they exist, might have fallen from a state of grace and in that case might be redeemed through God’s mercy. Lewis added that it was even possible that other beings with souls might be redeemed through Christ’s sacrifice for the redemption of humanity at Calvary, citing St. Paul’s comment in Romans 8:19-23 that the whole of creation is longing to be delivered from slavery and that this deliverance will occur only when Christians fully exercise the “glorious liberty” conferred on them.
If intelligent life did exist, had fallen and could not be redeemed by God, either through Christ or in another way, this could pose a challenge to the Christian faith, Lewis acknowledged.
But, he said, “I think a Christian is sitting pretty if his faith never encounters more formidable difficulties than these conjectural phantoms.”
Added Lewis, “Christians and their opponents again and again expect that some new discovery will either turn matters of faith into knowledge or else reduce them to patent absurdities. But it never happens.”
Brother Guy believes there have been no theological statements on the subject by the Vatican apart from one allegedly made in the 1950s that he has so far been unable to track down.
Nonetheless, contrary to many reports in the secular press, Father Funes’ comments to L’Osservatore Romano do not represent an official Vatican statement but remain merely his personal views.
However, the fact they were published in the Vatican newspaper signifies support of the wider Church for the acceptability of his position regarding the possible existence of intelligent aliens.
“Essentially, it is evidence that the Vatican hierarchy agrees that there’s no problem,” Brother Guy said May 14.
He also added that the article’s publication is an “indication of its support” for the observatory following “inaccurate reporting” in some secular newspapers last year that the Jesuit astronomers had been told to leave their home at the papal summer residence.
Vatican on Darwin
Elsewhere in the L’Osservatore interview, Father Funes said that science and religion need each other and noted many astronomers believe in God.
“Science and religion are two allies that elevate the human spirit,” he explained, quoting Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. “There can be tensions or conflicts, but we mustn’t be afraid. The Church mustn’t fear science and its discoveries.”
The Vatican is demonstrating its willingness to dialogue constructively with science by sponsoring initiatives that discuss scientific theories and discoveries. Next March, the Pontifical Council for Culture, in association with the University of Notre Dame, will host a Rome conference marking the 150th anniversary of the On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin’s seminal work on the theory of evolution.
Conference organizers say the meeting is intended to chart a middle course between the antagonistic ideological positions of an antireligious metaphysical evolutionism and a fundamentalist creationism based in a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis.
Another co-sponsor of the Darwin conference is the Rome-based “Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest,” also known as the STOQ project. Six pontifical universities are participating in the STOQ project with the objective of improving dialogue between science and philosophy.
“We hope this will really be an example of how to hold an open discussion without overtones,” said Professor Gennaro Auletta, director of the specialization “Science and Philosophy” at the Pontifical Gregorian University and a leading contributor to the STOQ project. “We simply wish to dialogue between people whose mission is to understand a little more.”
(Register staff contributed to this report.)
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.