‘Is there other intelligent life in our universe?’


A number of years ago I was attending an interreligious symposium at The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. on the topic of Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust. At dinner I had a very interesting conversation with one of the Jesuit presenters about their observatory in Rome. I remember asking him what they were looking for in the heavens and him responding that among many things they were seeking signs of intelligent life in outer space. His answer fascinated me and caused me to reflect on the possibility of extraterrestrial life and how it would fit into our Judeo-Christian history of salvation. I thought that the discovery of intelligent non-human life would have a great impact on all religions and their theological constructs.

I was once again intrigued by the notion of extraterrestrial life as I read about the Vatican-sponsored five day gathering held earlier this month at Vatican City that brought together astronomers, physicists, biologists and other experts in science to discuss the budding field of astrobiology — the study of the origin of life and its existence elsewhere in the cosmos. I read that Father Jose Funes, an astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory said, “The questions of life’s origins and of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are very suitable and deserve serious consideration.” He added that the possibility of alien life raises “many philosophical and theological implications.”

In an interview with the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, Father Funes is quoted as saying he doesn’t rule out the possibility that life could have developed on other planets. He said, “Just as we consider earthly creatures as ‘a brother and sister’ why should we not talk about an ‘extraterrestrial brother?’ It would still be part of creation. Thinking otherwise would be like ‘putting limits’ on God’s omnipotence.” The title of the L’Osservatore Romano article was “Aliens Are My Brother.” The search for forms of extraterrestrial life, he says, does not contradict belief in God.

Some of the theological implications of the possibility of extraterrestrial life for Father Funes are that there is no conflict between believing in God and in the possibility of intelligent life on other planets. He says even if “we don’t currently have any proof…the hypothesis” of extraterrestrial life cannot be ruled out. “Just as there are a plethora of creatures on Earth, there could be others, equally intelligent, created by God,” he contends. As regards one of the central tenets of Christianity the doctrine of original sin and salvation in Christ, Father Funes says, “If other intelligent beings exist, it’s not certain that they need redemption.” They could “have remained in full friendship with their creator” and have no original sin or need for redemption. He posits that if they also fell into sin extraterrestrials would also benefit from the “incarnation,” in which Jesus Christ, the Son of God, assumed earthlings’ flesh, body and soul in order to redeem them, which Father Funes called “a unique event that cannot be repeated.”

American professor Chris Impey, head of the Steward Observatory and the University of Arizona’s department of astronomy in Tucson, Ariz., who attended the conference said, “If biology is not unique to Earth, or life elsewhere differs bio-chemically from our version, or we ever make contact with intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound.” Professor Impey added, “It is appropriate that a meeting on this frontier topic be hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The motivations and methodologies might differ, but both science and religion posit life as a special outcome of a vast and mostly inhospitable universe. There is a rich middle ground for dialogue between the practitioners of astrobiology and those who seek to understand the meaning of our existence in a biological universe.”

Another participant, Jonathan Lunine, professor of planetary science and physics at the University of Arizona said that three or four worlds within the solar system possess conditions where life may be found. When and if this occurs, human beings will need to rethink and expand our theological understandings and doctrines. The impact on ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and understanding would be greatly affected as a whole new perspective would open up for all people of religion. Who knows, maybe those Jesuits searching the heavens will find evidence of intelligent life and finally answer the question, “is there other intelligent life in our universe?”