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Aliens? Be not afraid Print E-mail
By Joseph Wood   
Wednesday, 02 March 2011

In early February, NASA announced new results suggesting that a sizable number of planets are orbiting other stars in our Milky Way galaxy. Scientists are using the Kepler Space Telescope to measure tiny variations in the light of distant stars, which could represent planets passing between a star and the telescope. Observers identified 1235 “planet candidates” within Kepler’s field of view. Like someone looking through a soda straw, Kepler stares at 1/400th of the total galaxy, which gives it a view of some 156,000 stars. Extrapolating from this 1/400th to the whole galaxy, the number of potential “planet candidates” becomes large, compared to previously available data. Around fifty-four of those candidates seen so far in Kepler’s sliver of the sky are thought to be in the habitable zone between too cold for life, and too hot. While the number of galaxies in the universe is not known with precision, the current estimates range from 100 billion to over 200 billion. So, the number of habitable planets in the universe could be vast.

Or it could be much smaller. Substantial work remains to be done using other instruments to confirm which planet candidates are in fact planets, habitable or not. “Habitable” here is an elastic word that does not mean inhabited, and the unknowns far exceed the knowns: whether such life exists, whether (if it does) it is intelligent or self-aware, whether it would be interested in communicating, whether it likes baseball, bacon and eggs, beer and wine, and cheese, or has features that would make it worth meeting, etc. But the recent evidence is still intriguing and, very possibly, a step forward in our understanding of the universe.

This is not the first time in recent years that evidence has emerged to support the plausibility, though not the fact or likelihood, of life on other planets. And each time, news reports assert that such findings call into question Christian, especially Catholic, teaching. Little explanation of why this should be so is provided, though montages of the pope and ET adorn the newspapers and television screens, and dark allusions to the persecution of Galileo and Giordano Bruno abound. Certainly those were episodes of error by the institutional Church, yet the faith persisted alongside scientific exploration. But many Christians do seem to wonder if their belief could survive definitive proof that life exists elsewhere in the universe.

       Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., Vatican astronomer

The Catholic faith, of course, would not just survive but thrive in the event of such a discovery. To begin with, God is truth. If the truth is that other forms of life exist in the universe, then that truth can certainly be encompassed by Catholic faith. The Catechism quotes Gaudium et Spes:

methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.
Moreover, the modern study of science emerged from universities established by Catholic scholars in the high middle ages, where students took astronomy before theology in their curriculum. As Benjamin Wiker has shown, speculation about the possibility (or impossibility) of other life has been plentiful in secular circles since ancient times, including Aristotle with his influence on later Christian thinking, and within the Church since those early universities.

Recent Christian writers such as C.S. Lewis and Walker Percy have explored the possibilities of life on other worlds in their fiction while keeping their faith. The Vatican held a conference on the prospect in 2009: no one walked away rending garments over the intractable theological problems raised. The engaging Vatican astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., has given many patient interviews to breathless reporters seeking their Pulitzer in connecting astronomical findings to the demise of Catholicism. He and others who have seriously studied both astronomy and theology see no great danger. Surveying Lewis’ science fiction, Father James Schall concludes in The Order of Things that, whether such life exists or not, the absence of contact with other worlds by the billions of souls who have passed their lives on Earth tells us that our purpose here does not depend on finding life there, even as our capacity to know all things leads us to explore the possibility. 

Perhaps other habitable planets are there for us only to observe and wonder about (all we are likely to do for the foreseeable future), perhaps to visit and inhabit using physics and engineering not yet foreseen, perhaps to meet their inhabitants. About 1500 years of scientific exploration ago, St. Augustine taught that if we encounter verifiable facts of nature that contradict our interpretations of Scripture, we need to reexamine our scriptural conclusions; doing so strengthens rather than debilitates our faith. And, of course, there is Scripture itself. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold.” Perhaps he was speaking of the various tribes of Israel, or of Gentiles spread to the ends of the Earth. Or, as Christian science-fiction fans have pondered, perhaps His other sheep are light-years away.

Joseph R. Wood
is a former White House official who worked on foreign policy, including Vatican affairs.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
written by Grump, March 02, 2011
I think it was sci-fi writer Arthur Clarke who said there were two possibilities about life in the universe, both frightening: "Either we are alone or we are not alone." If there are other species, one can't help believe they are more intelligent and "humane" than the flawed one that exists on Earth.

Or, put another way, the difference between the universe and human stupidity may be that there are limits to the universe. : )
written by Jacob R, March 02, 2011
Grump I don't get it.
Explain why your buddy thinks they must be better than us?
They could be but who knows and what in the universe gives us a clue in either direction?

Either way this is exciting!
How will the secular people feel if these new aliens find them to be naive and vapid and only respect and desire serious consultation with the religious? Maybe from another perspective fundamentalist secularism would seem absurd.

(I have a feeling Battlestar Galactica and other pop sci fi got it wrong..religious belief will thrive in the Space Age and not everything will be named after a Greek god!)
written by The Moz, March 02, 2011
The last part gave me the chills. Would love to read a sci-fi book with that as its theme.
written by Grump, March 02, 2011
Jake...actually that conclusion was mine, not Clarke's. Man may have been made perfect, but his descent was so obvious that he needed saving from hell, as no other species on earth, needs. Which makes him the worst of creation, ipso facto. Face it, Adam and Eve blew it.
written by William Z, March 02, 2011
So, Grump'
"If there are other species, one can't help believe they are more intelligent and "humane" than the flawed one that exists on Earth."

Why do you think so little of yourself?

written by Rudy, March 02, 2011
The Fall of Adam and Eve, from whom we are all descendants, resulted in making all of us earthlings the victims of Original Sin. Thus rather than never experiencing death as initially intended by God in the Garden of Eden, we earthly people suffer from the flaws of our wounded nature, including death and concupicence,which leads us into sin against God. Could aliens have a more perfect nature, because they are not affected by our Original Sin?
written by Grump, March 02, 2011
William, to balance out those who think so much of themselves. : )
written by Billy Bean, March 02, 2011
Again, the venerable C.S. Lewis should be consulted. He wrote a trilogy of outstanding theological/science fiction works ("Out of the Silent Planet"; "Perlandra"; "That Hideous Strength"). He demonstrates quite aptly that the Christian worldview can contain many worlds, even within our own space-time dimension. The interesting thing is, that doesn't even seem to be his main concern...
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., March 02, 2011
The paradox of Oringinal Sin makes no dent in my faith in God or my accepatance of all that the Church holds to be revealed by God, but I am still puzzled by how Adam and Even could have been tricked into sin if they themselves did not already have Orginal Sin. After all, pride, avarice, weakness before temptation, and the inclicnation to worship creations instead of the Creator, are parts of our fallen nature as the result of Original Sin. So how did our first parents fall into sin if they did already have those flaws. It adds little to expalin this just to say that they had free will but abused to it disobey God. No doubt our greatest theolgians and Doctors of the Church have wrestled long and hard with this one, but I haven't found anything that doesn't have me resorting to the hope that I will grasp these things in the next world.
written by John Hoben, March 02, 2011
Hi Moz!

Actually there is such a Sci Fi novel. Its called "The Facade" written by Dr. Mike Heiser.

written by Marcus, March 03, 2011
Grump: "Man may have been made perfect, but his descent was so obvious that he needed saving from hell, as no other species on earth, needs. Which makes him the worst of creation, ipso facto."

But we are also the only beings made for Heaven, which makes us the BEST of creation!
written by Berto Bartos, March 04, 2011

Adam and Eve had very much to be proud of, so perhaps
got a little too big for their britches. Pride is an
attractive temptation for people so very gifted.

They were outsmarted by the devil despite their
original, unfallen nature and preternatural gifts.

He was a clever tempter because he had already
committed his own original sin, and was even able
to convince half of the heavenly hosts to join
in the grand mutiny.

God gave the original couple sufficient grace to
resist temptation but did not isolate them from
it. Free, rational creatures must be able to
withstand the evil influence of other free

They failed the test of love. It was deliberate.

written by Graham Combs, March 06, 2011
Science Fiction seems, unfortunately, to be yet another precinct of culture that is hostile to the Church. For example, Michael Moorcocks ugly BEHOLD THE MAN or just last year, Terry Pratchet joining Dawkins, Hitchins and others in demanding that the Holy Father be arrested and arraigned when he visited England, Scotland, and Wales. Many years ago a friend gave me a short story about an Anglican missionary who discovers that his alien converts, believing that the Crucifixion demanded imitation, crucified one of their own. Arthur C. Clarke's short story about the Star of Bethlehem being a supernova that destroyed a civilization also seems to represent a hostility to the Church. Mr. Clarke is on record as calling religion a virus, a infection to be eradicated. (Although C.S. Lewis praised CHILDHOOD'S END.) A Catholic imagination has never been more important...

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