ROME — In a highly anticipated press conference on February 22, NASA declared that seven Earth-sized planets have been discovered orbiting a relatively close dwarf star. For space enthusiasts, trekkies and stargazers, the possibility of finding alien life forms just got one step closer to reality.
The tiny “salmon-colored” star is unassumingly called Trappist-1. Held tightly in its gravitational embrace are seven planets, that due to their proximity to the cold star might have the perfect requirements to host the primary ingredient of life: water.
“I think that we have made a crucial step toward finding if there is life out there,” said Amaury H. M. J. Triaud, an astronomer at the University of Cambridge in England and part of the research team.
Just a few decades ago, we could only suppose the existence of other forms of life in the vast diversity of space. Today more than 3,000 exoplanets (planets which, like ours, are close to a sun) have been identified. Finding extraterrestrial life in the universe seems no longer a question of “if,” but of “when.”
A Crisis of Faith
So, just as a thought exercise, suppose a flying saucer landed in St. Peter’s Square during the pope’s weekly general audience. What would that mean for the Catholic faith?
As it happens, Pope Francis is three years ahead of us.
“If an expedition of Martians arrives and some of them come to us and if one of them says: ‘Me, I want to be baptized!’, what would happen?” the pope said during morning Mass in May of 2014.
Simple. For the pope of the peripheries, no matter how distant they may be, the Church does not turn others away.
Even if Pope Francis were able to keep his cool, anyone who has ever seen a sci-fi movie where aliens visit Earth knows that the general expectation is widespread panic, with religions being the first to crumble.
Outside Hollywood, real believers seem more composed. According to a 2011 study for the Royal Society, about 90 percent of believers felt that if intelligent life were to be discovered on other planets, they would not have a crisis of faith.
The truth is that religions, being in the business of understanding the place of human beings in the world, are naturally drawn to wonder at the immensity of the sky and the vastness of space.
For Catholics, enriched by Greco-Roman philosophy, the question of whether there were other worlds had a pretty early onset.
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas was already arguing for the existence of other worlds and beginning to wrap his mind around its theological implications in his Third Book of Sentences.
For the French priest and philosopher John Buridan (1295-1363), saying that no other worlds existed implied imposing a limit to the power of God. “We hold from faith that just as God made this world, so he could make another or several worlds,” he wrote.
The deep ties between the Catholic faith and the study of the stars are demonstrated by the fact that the Gregorian calendar –the most widely used system of keeping tabs on the Earth’s voyage around the sun – was promulgated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.
For a very long period in history, Religion and Astronomy were twin sisters, intrinsically joined and often confused. When Galileo Galilei had his arm-wrestle with the Catholic Church over his heliocentric ideas the issue was not scientific, it was theological.
Catholics and Space
The estrangement between Religion and Astronomy continued and worsened during the enlightenment. But in the past century, the Church has been trying to bridge the gap.
Speaking to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1996 Pope John Paul II said “truth cannot contradict truth,” insisting that the Catholic Church had nothing to fear from scientific advancement and its challenges, and vice versa.
He was quoting Pope Leo XIII, who in 1891 had reestablished the historic Specula Vaticana, the Vatican Observatory. The Latin Dictionary issued by the Holy See even includes the acronym RIV, Res Inesplicata Volantes, meaning Unexplained Flying Object, or UFO.
Many Catholics have embraced the possibility of life beyond our “pale blue dot.” According to a 2015 study by Joshua Ambrosius, professor at the University of Dayton, Catholics and ‘nones’ are the two groups most optimistic about the possibility of discovering extraterrestrial life in the next 40 years.
The study published on Space Policy found that Catholics are more likely than any other group in the country to say that it is “essential that the United States continue to be a world leader in space exploration.”
Catholicism is an evangelizing faith, so it’s not so difficult to believe that Catholics would be ready to set sail to where “no man has been before” to spread the Gospel.
The Infinite Gardens of Eden
In 1588 Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican Friar, wrote the following in his 5th dialogue of On the Cause, Principle, and Unity:
“I can imagine an infinite number of worlds like the earth, with a Garden of Eden on each one. In all these Gardens of Eden, half the Adams and Eves will not eat the fruit of knowledge, but half will. But half of infinity is infinity, so an infinite number of worlds will fall from grace and there will be an infinite number of crucifixions.”
To say that this type of consideration threw the XVI century Church into a fit is an understatement. Beyond the fact that Bruno, though being a man of undoubted intuition, had no proof for his otherworldly assertions, the theological implications of his statements were shattering to say the least.
If NASA scientists were to tell us at the next press conference that they had made contact with extraterrestrial life, the Catholic faith would have to solve a theological conundrum.
Jesuit George Coyne SJ, director of the Vatican Observatory from 1978 to 2006, asked himself some of the main questions: “How could he be God and leave extra-terrestrials in their sin? After all, he was good to us. Why should he not be good to them? God chose a very specific way to redeem human beings. He sent his only Son, Jesus, to them and Jesus gave up his life so that human beings would be saved from their sin. Did God do this for extra-terrestrials?”
References to extraterrestrial life in the Gospel are predictably scant. In one passage Jesus says “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd,” (John 10:16).
The current director of the Vatican Observatory until 2015, José Gabriel Funes, (also a Jesuit) hypothesized that “we human beings might be the lost sheep, the sinners in need of a shepherd. God became man in Jesus to save us. In that case, even if there were other sentient life forms, they might not be in need of redemption. They could have stayed in full harmony with their Creator.”
This is, of course, an optimistic scenario, but it shows how the Catholic faith could embrace Earth’s possible intergalactic future.
The Multiple Incarnations of Christ
At Earth’s first dinner party with Catholics and aliens, the issue of Jesus’ Incarnation might be an elephant in the room — though, presumably, far from the only one.
According to Italian Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, the work by theologians Saint Bonaventure and Duns Scotus could offer a guideline to interpreting the Incarnation as the fulfillment of God’s relationship with the world that started with the act of Creation.
“God would enter into humanity not because of the sinful choice made by the free creature but to complete His global creative project and his tie with his creations, especially humans,” Ravasi said in an interview with Italian newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore, back in 2012.
Even Karl Rahner, considered one of the most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century, when faced with the possibility of extraterrestrial life admitted that, “in view of the immutability of God in himself and the identity of the Logos with God, it cannot be proved that a multiple incarnation in different histories of salvation is absolutely unthinkable.”
A Space for Catholics
The recent discovery by NASA scientists is not the first of its kind, and, in all likelihood, won’t be the last. For Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, planetary scientist at the Vatican’s observatory and curator of the pope’s meteorite collection, extraterrestrial life is no threat to the faith.
In an 2002 interview with U.S. Catholic, Consolmagno even said he would be happy to baptize aliens if they wanted to. “Any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul,” he said.
Even if the Church’s venerable age pales in comparison to the eons of time and space, it has learned a few things and picked up a couple instruments that have allowed her to survive sieges, struggles and schisms.
“Christians do not have to renounce their faith in God just because of new unexpected information of a religious nature regarding extraterrestrial civilizations,” said Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, Vatican astronomer and theologian.
Once believers will have verified that these alien civilizations come from another planet, he said. They will have to conduct a “rereading of the Gospel in light of the new data.”
In sum, most of these observers believe the Catholic faith is strong enough to withstand the test of extraterrestrial life. Be it in the Jazz scene in Star Wars or Captain Kirk’s deck, be it tall blue Avatars or helping E.T. “phone home,” there will always be “space” for Catholicism.