Father Jose Funes, chief astronomer of the Vatican Observatory, has confirmed that alien life is possible on other planets. This declaration was at the tail-end of a 5-day conference mounted by the Vatican which included experts in the fields of astronomy, physics and biology. There are of course, the obvious ironic comparisons which the media and pundits have made about Giordano Bruno, Copernicus and Galileo. The Church’s past brushes with science have been less than stellar. Just ask Bruno, who was burned at the stake. But that was 400 years ago. This is a new era. The Church of Rome has accepted Evolution. What’s next? Extraterrestrials? Well, yes.
Now that the Vatican has officially espoused the idea of alien lifeforms, let’s examine a few ramifications:
Firstly, a huge pool of potential converts. Let’s assume we make contact with aliendom within 50 years. Christianity has a long history of proselytizing, and it’s come a long way from sword-wielding Spaniards in the New World and the Inquisition. Is it a stretch to assume the next breed of evangelizing Jesuits would be conversant in astrobiology, astrophysics and non-terrestrial socio-cultural studies? But would extraterrestrial cultural norms allow for Christian concepts? Each culture on this planet has been shaped by particular geographical and historical circumstances. The fusion of cultures and religions hasn’t always been a happy one. The collision between the Aztecs and the Spaniards is a case in point.
Two: Exposure to an alien culture goes both ways. Would humanity in turn be exposed to alien belief systems? Definitely. But the above argument questioning whether terrestrial and extraterrestrial cultures could overlap in religion applies equally here. What kind of a religious belief system might a species of gas-filled jellyfish floating in a methane atmosphere have? Would it be adaptable for bipeds who breathe oxygen?
Three, this could potentially polarize Catholics. Will the Vatican’s acceptance of ETs provoke a crisis of conscience for those who don’t believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial life? Probably. Belief in ETs isn’t across the board with humans, and there will be plenty of skeptics within Catholicism. More importantly, there are still strong convictions among many humans (Christian and non-Christian) that our species is the pinnacle of cosmic creation, even after years of contrary evidence.
Four: Will other Christian denominations follow the Catholic Church’s lead in officially acknowledging the possibility of non-human lifeforms? Perhaps. The Bible isn’t too clear on the subject of extraterrestrial life. But as Father Funes pointed out:
“Just as there is a multitude of creatures on Earth, there could be other beings, even intelligent ones, created by God. This does not contradict our faith, because we cannot put limits on God's creative freedom.”
Five: Does the existence of aliens mean that heaven potentially contains multiple species? Do aliens even go to a ‘heaven?’ Humans have always had a need for a hereafter. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic POV is particularly needful when it comes to brandishing the prospect of a sweet hereafter for its adherents. But it’s interesting to speculate as to what kind of afterlife extraterrestrials believe in. I would wager it’s something more esoteric than a field of golden wheat basking in an equally golden sun, a garden of milk and honey or an island forested with apple trees.
Perhaps non-human life forms of extraterrestrial origin don’t have heaven. They might have a belief system which is more Buddhist or Hindu. Perhaps a stream of reincarnating existences that don’t require a heaven or a hell, but a purification of themselves and their environment through acts of goodwill in the material plane. Our spacefaring missionaries might ironically become acculturated by these strange offworld concepts, and bring them back to Earth. Our species will be appalled.
Of course, not all extraterrestrials will welcome proselytizing, either by Catholics or anyone else. Some may be outright hostile. But we’d like to imagine a higher, loftier approach that aliens have with regards to religion. They might not agree with the tenets of Christianity, but hopefully, they won’t take our Jesuit missionaries with PhD’s and pop them into a stew pot. That would be awkward, and extremely disheartening to every other religion lining up to evangelize the heathen extraterrestrials.
For now, all of this is nothing more than a thought exercise. But as Father Funes inferred, it’s a narrow human conceit to believe that the Divine Creator of everything in the universe decided that life should only exist in an average solar system parked on the fringe of a galaxy that’s only one out of millions of other galaxies. That seems to be an inexcusable lack of creativity.