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In a 2008 interview, Fr. José Gabriel Funes, Director of the Vatican Observatory, asked a provocative question: “To say it with St. Francis, if we can consider some earthly creatures as 'brothers' or 'sisters', why could we not speak of a ‘brother alien’?”
Fr. Funes’ question was based on the uncontroversial notion that all creatures have a kinship of some kind, but his comments fanned the flames of Vatican-UFO conspiracy theories. One website wondered if “the Vatican [is] easing humanity toward alien disclosure?” Another proclaimed that “the Catholic Church is getting ready to offer communion to extraterrestrials.”
People remain fascinated by the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrials. A recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll found that 50 percent of Americans believe there is some sort of life on other planets, and that 38 percent believe that intelligent life exists on other planets. Only about one fifth of Americans (17 percent and 21 percent) deny that some sort of life or intelligent life exists on other planets. A large percentage of Americans are uncertain on the questions (33 percent and 42 percent).
Indeed, Roswell, NM remains a tourist destination decades after the supposed UFO crash, and alien movies aren’t going out of style anytime soon. And though it’s usually confined to the more bizarre end of the soft news section, the mainstream media regularly reports on UFO sightings.
The possibility of extraterrestrial life remains an ongoing conversation with no signs of it dying down anytime soon. Is there a Catholic view of the possibility and implications of extraterrestrial life?
The Vatican's Alien Conferences
Though the Catholic Church has largely stayed on the sidelines of the conversation, the Church hasn’t remained entirely silent on it either.
In the same interview mentioned above, Fr. Funes also said, “Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures over the earth, so there could be other beings, even intelligent [beings], created by God. This is not in contradiction with our faith because we cannot establish limits to God’s creative freedom."
According to the press bulletin listed on the Vatican website of the 13th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in October 2012, Werner Arber, a professor of Microbiology at the University of Basel and the President of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences in Switzerland, told the participants, “At this time, we assume that life may also exist on some extraterrestrial planets.” He did qualify himself, though: “[B]ut we are still waiting for scientific evidence for this assumption.”
But most importantly, the Vatican hosted a conference on the subject of extraterrestrial life in 2008. According to a CBS News report, “thirty scientists, including non-Catholics, from the U.S., France, Britain, Switzerland, Italy and Chile attended the conference, called to explore among other issues whether sentient life forms exist on other worlds." And that conference was “not the first time the Vatican has explored the issue of extraterrestrials: in 2005, its observatory brought together top researchers in the field for similar discussions.” The Church had no official conclusion on the existence of extraterrestrial life from the conferences.
We Already Know Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life Exists
“The Catholic Church has always believed in extraterrestrial intelligences,” says Randall Smith, Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. “[W]e call them ‘angels.’ It’s only the rather cramped view of the Enlightenment theorists that insisted man was entirely alone in the universe.”
Philosopher and author Dennis Bonnette agrees. “There already exist extraterrestrial spiritual agents. They are called angels and demons. It appears such beings already have interacted with human beings, beginning in the Garden of Eden.”
Matthew Lamb, Professor and Chair of the Theology Department at Ave Maria University, points out the lack of novelty in such a belief. “The notion that there are other intelligent beings in the universe is not new. Indeed, the best of the Greek and Latin intellectuals spoke of ‘separate intelligences’ (philosophers) or ‘angels’ (Biblical and later theologians).”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches regarding angels: “The existence of the spiritual, non-corporeal beings that Sacred Scripture usually calls ‘angels’ is a truth of faith. The witness of Scripture is as clear as the unanimity of Tradition. […] As purely spiritual creatures, angels have intelligence and will: they are personal and immortal creatures, surpassing in perfection all visible creatures, as the splendor of their glory bears witness” (328, 330).
So humans are not so alone in this universe after all, even with regards to intelligent life – and Catholics have never thought otherwise.
A False God?
Of course, discussions about the possibility of extraterrestrial life are really about the existence of other intelligent corporeal beings in the universe. But that doesn’t mean spirituality should be dismissed from the conversation.
“[M]uch of the fascination with the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrials is spiritual in nature,” says Paul Gondreau, Professor of Moral Theology at Providence College.
A whole host of religions involving aliens have sprung up in the recent decades. Raëlism, the largest of these “UFO religions,” teaches that extraterrestrial intelligent life is responsible for life on Earth. These aliens, they believe, also have advanced technology capable of “mind transfer” – a technology that purportedly makes possible a certain kind of everlasting life. Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, and others were prophets sent by the aliens to teach humanity in a specific time and place. Raëlism even teaches these aliens will manifest themselves to all people on Earth soon, reminiscent of the Christian belief in the Second Coming.
“To me, this bespeaks the fundamental Christian tenet that the human being is ultimately ordered to God,” says Gondreau, “that in the depths of each human heart is a fundamental yearning for God.”
“If one lives in a secular culture like ours that seeks to deny God's existence, or at least exclude the relevance of God at the personal level, we inevitably see cheaper, vastly inferior alternatives put forward in God's place. This accounts in large measure, I believe, for the current fascination with extraterrestrial intelligent life.”
Possible, but Unlikely – and a Waste of Time
Not everyone who wonders whether extraterrestrial life exists has joined a new religion. Quasi-spiritual excesses aside, what is the chance that there’s life on other planets?
Paul Griffiths, Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke University Divinity School, thinks there’s actually a good chance there’s life on other planets. “I think it very likely that there's life in the cosmos that didn't originate on earth. Evidence from, e.g., the Mars Rover is close to decisive that there has been such life.”
Marie George, Professor of Philosophy at St. John's University in New York, disagrees. “[I]t is important to keep in mind that to say that it is possible that intelligent extraterrestrials… exist is not the same thing as to say that it is probable or likely that they exist. […] My view is that Christian belief does not render [the] existence [of intelligent extraterrestrials] impossible, but that it does render it highly unlikely.”
George points to the Incarnation as strong evidence weighing against the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life. “Those who see no opposition whatsoever focus on God’s power, overlooking his wisdom which is expressed in his plan for the universe, which we know through Scripture to center on Christ.”
“God is able to create other intelligent material races, but in his wisdom may well have limited himself to a single one whose flesh was taken on by the Eternal Word.”
Robert Fastiggi, Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, is similarly skeptical. “I think we cannot rule out the possibility of life on other planets, but there is a big leap between having life and having intelligent forms capable of communicating with us. […] I am skeptical … about reports of appearances of extraterrestrial life on earth. The Catholic approach is to try first to explain something by natural causality.”
Ronda Chervin, Professor of Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary, thinks that the alien question can be a distraction. “It is not a heresy to think that there could be aliens on other planets. But the preoccupation with this in our culture seems symptomatic of a generally sensationalist mentality that, for some, takes time away from meditating on the truths of the faith we know for certain.”
Lawrence DiPaolo, Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Sacred Scripture at the University of St. Thomas, agrees with Chervin. “With God, all things are possible, so one should remain open to the possibility that intelligent life may indeed exist outside of our solar system. One cannot, however, let the possibility of such extraterrestrial life distract us from the very terrestrial needs of those around us.”
Author Eric Brende points to lack of evidence for his agnosticism. “[F]or the most part, it seems idle to ponder questions about extraterrestrial life until we have concrete evidence of it. I think I’d leave such imaginative forays to science fiction writers and Hollywood.”
Anthony Esolen, who teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College, thinks the fascination with other aliens from other worlds shows a lack of appreciation for our own world. “I think that our fascination with the subject betrays a deep boredom with ourselves. If you really want to visit an alien, go knock on the door of your next door neighbor! If you really want to know what it's like to be invaded by someone beaming down from the skies, have a child! Those adventures, if you undertake them with your eyes wide open, will be more exciting than anything Captain Kirk ever encountered.”
… But What if Aliens Do Exist?
“It wouldn't matter to Christian doctrine either way,” says Esolen. “For one of the old arguments against the creator-God, given by Epicurus and Lucretius, was that there’s too much of this world that is uninhabitable. So if there were no life elsewhere, what would have been the point of all that uninhabitable space? And yet some people say that if there is life elsewhere, that proves that we aren't so special.”
“Nor do I think that their existence or nonexistence should worry the Christian as regards the doctrines of original sin or the Incarnation. We do not know how God will have dealt with other beings; it hasn't been revealed to us, and I suppose it is not our business.”
Smith has a similar sentiment. “New worlds would provide no more of a challenge to the Christian faith than did the sixteenth century discovery of the New World.”
Fastiggi is more willing to consider specific implications. “Intelligent extraterrestrial creatures would … seem to possess the image of God because the image of God is to be found principally in the intelligent nature of creatures, whether angels, humans, or otherwise.”
“Extraterrestrial creatures would not be descendants of our first parents, so they would not be affected by original sin through propagation. They might be affected by the ‘cosmic’ effects of original sin, but exactly how they would be thus affected remains unclear.”
Fastiggi isn’t sure whether such creatures would have their own Fall or not, or whether they would be in need of some sort of redemption. Either way, says Fastiggi, we know from Scripture that Christ is central to God’s plan of redemption for the whole universe. “Christ, of course, is the expiation for the sins of ‘the whole world [cosmos]’ (1 Jn 2:2). The risen Christ also has sovereignty over the whole cosmos (cf. Eph 1:20-21 and Heb 2:7-8).”
“Therefore, even though extraterrestrial creatures would not have inherited the ‘sin of Adam’ as do members of the human race, Christ crucified and risen would have sovereignty over them, as well.”
The following Aleteia Experts contributed to this article:
Dennis Bonnette taught Thomistic philosophy for over 40 years and is the author of Origin of the Human Species (Sapientia press, 2003). His website is drbonnette.com.
Eric Brende is a rickshaw operator and soap maker in St. Louis. He has degrees from Yale, Washburn, and M.I.T. He is author of Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.
Ronda Chervin is a Professor of Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.
Lawrence DiPaolo, Jr. is Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Sacred Scripture at the University of St. Thomas.
Anthony Esolen teaches Renaissance English Literature and the Development of Western Civilization at Providence College. A senior editor for Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, he writes regularly for Touchstone, First Things, Catholic World Report, Magnificat, This Rock, and Latin Mass.
Robert Fastiggi is a professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, MI.
Marie George is a professor of Philosophy at St John's University in Queens, NY.
Paul Gondreau teaches at Providence College in the areas of moral theology, with an emphasis on marriage, Christology, and sacraments, with a specialization in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, and he is Faculty Director of Providence College Center for Theology & Religious Studies. He is also an associate editor of the journal Nova et Vetera.
Paul J. Griffiths is the Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke University Divinity School.
Fr. Matthew Lamb is Professor of Theology and Chair of the Department of Theology at Ave Maria University. He has taught in the Theology Department at Marquette University, and Boston College, has lectured at universities in Europe and North and Central America, authored several books and over hundred and forty-five articles on various topics.
Randall Smith is Professor of Theology and holds the Scanlan Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.