Scientists are closer than ever to finding out the truth about life beyond Earth. Just last month, NASA excitedly discussed the potential of one exoplanet — Kepler 452b — that appears to be the most Earth-like planet ever confirmed outside of the solar system.
The Vatican is also excited about the prospect of finding alien life. But it has a few things to say on the subject first.
The Vatican’s robust astronomy program, run by an Argentinean Jesuit named Father José Gabriel Funes, is part of that search. The Vatican Observatory is headquartered in Italy at Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope has a summer villa. But it also operates a telescope at the Mount Graham International Observatory at the University of Arizona.
The AFP asked Funes about NASA’s recent announcement, which he said was “great news.”
“It is probable there was life and perhaps a form of intelligent life,” Funes said.
But, he cautioned: “I don’t think we’ll ever meet a Mr. Spock.”
Funes has said for years that there’s no conflict between the possibility of alien life — even intelligent life — and the teachings of the Catholic Church. “Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on Earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God,” Funes said in 2008. “This is not in contrast with our faith because we can’t put limits on God’s creative freedom.”
“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,” he said.
Funes also spoke to the AFP about what discovery of alien life would mean for the church’s overall understanding of God’s covenants with human beings.
“The discovery of intelligent life does not mean there’s another Jesus,” he said. “The incarnation of the son of God is a unique event in the history of humanity, of the universe.”
He added: “If there was intelligent life (on another planet), I don’t see that as a contradiction with the Christian faith.”
This theological idea — that if God created aliens somewhere out there, then the Vatican is in no position to say Jesus wasn’t for them, too — is pretty consistent with comments from the pope himself about alien life. Last year, Francis said that if an alien being came to him and asked for a baptism, he would obviously oblige:
“If, for example, tomorrow an expedition of Martians came, and some of them came to us, here… Martians, right? Green, with that long nose and big ears, just like children paint them… And one says, ‘But I want to be baptized!’ What would happen?
“When the Lord shows us the way, who are we to say, ‘No, Lord, it is not prudent! No, lets do it this way’… Who are we to close doors? In the early Church, even today, there is the ministry of the ostiary [usher]. And what did the ostiary do? He opened the door, received the people, allowed them to pass. But it was never the ministry of the closed door, never.”
When the Vatican talks about this, it often makes allusions to the baptism of Gentiles into the early Christian church, which at first consisted largely of Jewish converts. In Acts, Peter says: “If God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno also said in 2010 that aliens who seek baptism should receive it from the church, because “any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul.”
For now, however, the Vatican’s astronomers will keep their eyes on the stars.
There are vast distances between Earth and some of the most promising Earth-like planets in our galaxy, making the possibility of learning about what life is out there – let alone having an alien show up at the Vatican’s door and ask for a baptism – seem rather remote. It’s certainly beyond the most advanced human technology that exists today.
Funes also had some interesting things to say about where the faithful should turn to for an understanding of the science behind the search for life, telling AFP: “The Bible is not a scientific book. If we look for scientific responses to our questions in the Bible, we are making a mistake.”
Instead, he said, the Bible “answers great questions, like ‘what is our role in the Universe?'”
And the scientific pursuit of knowledge about life beyond Earth can also “help us to understand ourselves, to understand our potential, but also our limits.”