NASA image of Saturn's moon Enceladus, from a distance of 9,000 miles
The Associated Press reports that last week the Vatican concluded a five day conference involving church officials and scientists from several countries on the subject of future discoveries of alien worlds and alien life, especially intelligent life, and the implications thereof, both scientific and religious.
That the conservative Catholic Church would participate in, much less host such a conference must seem surprising to many, but the Church has come a long way since the inquisition of Galileo nearly 400 years ago. At that time the church fiercely opposed the heliocentric view of the solar system, which Galileo championed, and on which he published several works advancing the theory, partly based on his voluminous observations through a telescope he had fashioned. After more than twenty years of acrimonious relations with the Church, from 1610 to 1633, Galileo was tried and found "vehemently suspect of heresy," and placed under house arrest, where he remained until his death in 1642.
Today the Church no longer opposes scientific discoveries and theories, and has even found evolution to be compatible with its teachings, unlike many Christian fundamentalists, who emphatically deny it. In fact, polls show that as many as half the American people still reject Darwin's theory of evolution in favor of the creation legends in Genesis I and 2 of the Bible. Perhaps in time these ultra-conservative groups may adopt a more flexible view that allows them to consider scientific findings as one of the most important ways the nature of their god is revealed to them. One can hope, anyway.
No doubt the Church is partially motivated by the sheer weight of scientific evidence and discoveries during the last few decades, and many more which are sure to come as powerful new investigatory tools are developed. Giant telescopes around the world are under construction for mountaintop observing, while others have been launched into earth or heliocentric orbits, including the Kepler telescope, which is searching for earth-like planets orbiting within the habitable zone around their home stars. The first results from this mission, albeit very preliminary, will be announced in January, 2010. The telescope was launched on March 6, 2009.
Meanwhile the SETI Institute (SETI stands for the "Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence") continues its work in the field of astrobiology, with the hopes of one day identifying signals from intelligent aliens. Such a communication could potentially revolutionize our view of the cosmos, and our religions. While the possibility of such a breakthrough is regarded as remote by most, we should prepare ourselves for the ramifications, and I believe the Catholic Church is doing just that. Someday, either through a lucky break with SETI, or the relentless advances in space exploration, we are going to find out that we are not alone, probably within a century. At the very least we are likely to discover worlds like ours are ubiquitous in the Milky Way galaxy, and that life thrives on many of them. That these worlds exist will be proven within the next three years through the Kepler mission.
In that regard, conference participant, astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory in Rome, Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, said, "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."
I would hope that more conservative religious groups will welcome these discoveries and adopt an expanded, enlightened worldview in time.