The Catholic University of America

Jan. 30, 2012

Is Anybody Out There?

WASHINGTON (CNS) – In November 2009, the Catholic Church made headlines by putting on a conference of astronomers and theologians to discuss the possibility of alien life. Nearly a year later, the pope’s top astronomer raised the subject again with the London Telegraph.

He said that the church would welcome and even baptize intelligent extraterrestrials -- “no matter how many tentacles.”

I remember reading this and worrying that people might think the church was falling prey to the same alien-mania that has recently gripped Hollywood. No credible observation of intelligent (or even unintelligent) alien life has ever been made. We have not even found another planet, besides our own, that could conceivably host it.

But we might be close. Columnist Charles Krauthammer noted recently in the Washington Post, “It’s only a matter of time – perhaps a year or two, estimates one astronomer – before we find the right [planet] of the right size in the right place” within its solar system.

If he’s right, then the church is ahead of its time in worrying about other worlds. Way ahead actually. In 1277, the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, condemned some ideas in the philosophical work that the recently deceased St. Thomas Aquinas and others at the University of Paris had produced.

One proscribed idea was the Aristotelian notion that there could not be many worlds because, as St. Thomas had argued, this would be less perfect than a single, unitary universe produced by and ordered to God – the unique First Cause of everything else.

Strictly speaking, Aquinas was referring to what we would today call multiple universes. But Tempier’s objection – that Aquinas’ way of thinking puts God in a box, limiting his power in ways that revealed truth does not justify – applies to the discussion of alien life as well.

Yet the possibility of alien life poses further questions about our beliefs as Catholics. Where would other intelligent life fit into the economy of salvation? The question is valuable at least as a mental exercise – an opportunity to consider our own story of sin and redemption.

If God made intelligent alien races, did he involve himself in their story, too? Did some or all of them reject God originally, as we did? Or did some, at their inception, resist temptation and choose more wisely than Adam and Eve? Do some even now remain in perfect harmony with nature and nature’s God?

If sin is not an inborn error or weakness but a choice that we made, is it not possible that others have chosen better? Imagine the story of Genesis coming out differently in a different world, as C.S. Lewis did in his Space Trilogy.

If alien races followed our own course in rejecting God, did they receive the same divine assistance afterward? Would Jesus have come to save them, too? And if they obeyed God instead, would God the Son have made himself known to them in the same way?

As Catholics, we believe that God created the whole universe, visible and invisible. It is a realm so full of stars and planets, yet so empty as to contain distances we will likely never travel and can only measure in light-years.

Perhaps the great mountain before us, of which we compose a mere grain of dust, serves only our edification, as a monument – to God’s greatness, to our own insignificance and to his love for us despite our insignificance.

Maybe it actually makes more sense if there is other life around to share God’s marvels – a further sign of our own insignificance in his greater scheme. 

More Columns by John Garvey