With help from Holmes and Hamlet, Francis and L'Engle.
What if we’re not alone in the universe? What if there are other intelligent beings with bodies out there?
The question has arisen a lot lately, with UFO reports growing in frequency and credibility — but Christians have looked at that question for years. Here are four attitudes Catholic (and nearly Catholic) thinkers have had.
First, the Sherlock Holmes attitude: Demand a lot of proof.
This first attitude says that it is possible that the newly declassified videos from naval fighter planes in 2004 and the cell phone video from that guy on the ferry last week recorded extraterrestrial visitors. But that shouldn’t be the first explanation we have for them.
Sherlock Holmes wasn’t Catholic, but the great fictional detective was created by Arthur Conan Doyle, who was educated by Jesuits before he left the faith, and Holmes has a very Catholic approach to the problems he faces. I love what he says in The Hound of the Baskervilles when confronted with the problem of a supposed demonic glowing hellhound loose on the moors.
He tells Watson: “If Dr. Mortimer’s surmise should be correct, and we are dealing with forces outside the ordinary laws of Nature, there is an end of our investigation. But we are bound to exhaust all other hypotheses before falling back upon this one.”
He neither believes nor rules out belief; he wants to see evidence.
This is in fact what scholastic thinkers of the 13th and 14th centuries said about other worlds like ours. Sure, God could have created them, they said — but they figured he probably didn’t.
Second, the Hamlet attitude: Be willing to accept the unexpected.
As William Shakespeare’s Hamlet says to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
That’s the right attitude toward the world. Jesus says we should “become like children” and part of that, I think, is being open-minded about what exists — and delighted by it, too.
Children exclaim in surprised joy when they see a bird or a squirrel. Adults should do the same thing — at the zoo, for starters, but also when we discover new creatures, like these, which look like space aliens.
God created all of it — “a wonder of infinite ideas, and all for our delight,” as Aleteia’s Kathleen Hattrup put it — and when we die we will encounter even more startling creatures.
Why should it surprise us if, added to all that, there are also intelligent beings on other planets?
Third, the Francis Attitude: Intergalactic hospitality.
As Vatican astronomer Father José Gabriel Funes put it in 2008, “As a multiplicity of creatures exist on earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God. … To say it with Saint Francis, if we consider earthly creatures as ‘brother’ and ‘sister,’ why cannot we also speak of an ‘extraterrestrial brother?’”
C.S. Lewis said the same thing. “If there are other species, we should welcome them. Our loyalty is due not to our species but to God. Those who are, or can become, his sons, are our real brothers even if they have shells or tusks.”
This is a problem that has faced Christians through history, and the Church’s teaching has seen the dignity in every new people we have encountered, from the Slavs to the Mongols to the natives of the New World. It all began in the Book of Acts, when Christians doubted Gentiles could be baptized, until St. Peter welcomed them in.
Commenting on the passage where he did so, Pope Francis said: “Just as if, for example, tomorrow an expedition of Martians came … green, with long noses and big ears, just like children draw them … and one were to say, ‘I want to be baptized!’ What would happen?”
He leaves that question unanswered, which leads us to a fourth attitude.
Fourth, the L’Engle Attitude: We don’t know them until we meet them.
Should we baptize extraterrestrials?
We know that angels exist, with no bodies, and that they faced a choice for or against God. We faced the same choice, fell through Adam and Eve, and their original sin is passed on by propagation to each of us, such that we all need to be baptized.
But we can only guess what extraterrestrials might be like. Would they be redeemed by Christ? Would they be redeemed by some other incarnation — or some other means besides incarnation? Would they be unfallen?
The Christian author Madeleine L’Engle, who, along with C.S. Lewis, imagined other worlds of both fallen and unfallen people, refused to answer the question as it relates to the real world.
“I believe that we can understand cosmic questions only through particulars. I can understand God only through one specific particular, the incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The great theologian Father Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange said the same thing. We don’t know who else is out there, so “we restrict our questions to our planet.”
Do space aliens need redemption? Let’s hold the question until we meet one — after all, we probably never will.