Monday, May 26, 2008

Old Friends: The Vatican and Extraterrestrials

Over the last few weeks, there has been much discussion about the comments of José Gabriel Funes, the Vatican’s chief astronomer, asserting that there is no contradiction between belief in extraterrestrials and Catholic doctrine. Many commentators such as Greg Laden suggest that this is a noteworthy event contrasting with prior statements by the Vatican. In fact, Catholicism has historically been open to the existence of intelligent life on other worlds. Catholic writers have discussed such notions for hundreds of years.

Michael Crowe in the “Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750-1900” surveys religious literature concerning extraterrestrial life from 1860 to 1900. Crowe does not claim that his survey is systematic or exhaustive but rather focuses on influential and prominent writers. According to Crowe, a substantial fraction of Catholic writers in the 19th century supported the existence of extraterrestrial life.[1]

Catholic authors have debated these issues for along time. Crowe traces discussion back to the early Church fathers such as Augustine who were largely opposed to the notion of extraterrestrial life. However, by the Middle Ages, pro-ET views were more acceptable in the Catholic Church.[2]

The existence of extraterrestrial life has posed serious problems for Christian theology. For example, if Jesus was incarnated once as a human, how could other species be saved? Some writers in the 19th century rejected Christianity on this basis, arguing that extraterrestrial life exists and that extraterrestrial life could not be reconciled with Christianity. Other writers have speculated that only humans fell or that Jesus came to multiple worlds. While Laden and others imply that such speculation is a new phenomenon it has been discussed for centuries. The Church has never taken a strong position on whether belief in extraterrestrial life is compatible with Christianity.[3]

In summary, the recent statement by the Vatican’s chief astronomer is not groundbreaking. It does not represent a substantial departure from existing Catholic doctrine nor does it represent progressive thinking by the Church. For further details on this topic, I recommend that interested readers read Crowe’s book which is dry but informative.

[1] Crowe’s numbers do not add up. He states that there are twenty seven Catholic authors with fourteen supporting extraterrestrial life, ten opposed and four not easily classifiable. 14+10+4=28 not 27. I have not made a detailed investigation to determine where Crowe’s math is off but I think there were only 3 unclassified (he does not give a table or any similar breakdown). Pg. 457 Michael J. Crowe, “The Extraterrestrial Life Debate, 1750 -1900” Dover Publications 1999.

[2] Crowe, pg. 6.

[3] The urban legend that Giordano Bruno was executed for believing in many worlds with life on them is false. While this was one of his views that the Church at the time objected to, Bruno espoused many other views which the Church considered far more problematic.


Dunc said...


The point of scholarship aside, I fail to see how whether the views of the Vatican or its dictator are relevant to the existence of extra-terrestrials.

Aliens either exist or they do not exist. There existence is a scientific question.

Theology is going to tell you nothing of any scientific relevance. The potential existence may apparently lead to theological questions, but theologians are capable of enough doublethink that a little thing like aliens isn't going to much trouble them.

Something that is relevant to the main question would be the observation of the effectiveness of Darwinian processes at producing and sustaining life. That it is so effective suggests indirectly that we are not alone. In fact, that seems perhaps to be the primer for the theological question.

Yet it seems unless SETI is freakily successful, the hypothesis will remain a hypothesis.

Joshua said...

I agree that the Vatican's views are irrelevant to the actual existence of extraterrestrials or not. The main reason I brought this up is because people are acting like this represents a possibly progressive turn for the Church. People have suggested that this demonstrates some sort of new open-mindedness. This simply isn't the case.

I disagree with your comment about Darwinian processes. Although it appears here that those processes are very effective at sustaining life we have no data on how easily abiogenesis can occur.