by Ronald Bailey
The Vatican held a conference last week on the scientific, philosophical, and religious implications of the existence of extraterrestrial life. The head of the Vatican's Observatory, Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, convened the meeting. The AP reports:
Thirty scientists, including non-Catholics, from the U.S., France, Britain, Switzerland, Italy and Chile attended the conference, called to explore among other issues "whether sentient life forms exist on other worlds."
Funes set the stage for the conference a year ago when he discussed the possibility of alien life in an interview given prominence in the Vatican's daily newspaper.
The Church of Rome's views have shifted radically through the centuries since Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1600 for speculating, among other ideas, that other worlds could be inhabited.
Scientists have discovered hundreds of planets outside our solar system — including 32 new ones announced recently by the European Space Agency. Impey said the discovery of alien life may be only a few years away.
"If biology is not unique to the Earth, or life elsewhere differs bio-chemically from our version, or we ever make contact with an intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound," he said.
This is not the first time the Vatican has explored the issue of extraterrestrials: In 2005, its observatory brought together top researchers in the field for similar discussions.
In the interview last year, Funes told Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that believing the universe may host aliens, even intelligent ones, does not contradict a faith in God.
"How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?" Funes said in that interview.
"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."
Funes maintained that if intelligent beings were discovered, they would also be considered "part of creation."
The religious implications of the existence of intelligent life have been explored in a variety of science fiction novels. For example, Christian apologist C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy uses Venus and Mars as backdrops for considering what would have happened had Eve resisted temptation in the earthly Garden of Eden. Probably my favorite in this genre is James Blish's A Case of Conscience (1958). A Jesuit priest travels to the planet Lithia which is inhabited by a race of beings whose society is characterized by peace, logic, and understanding in the complete absence of any belief in God. The priest comes to believe that such a happy race of aliens must be a snare and delusion of Satan. Naturally, bad things happen.
Ultimately, the chief theological question for believers would be whether their deity had arranged for a separate salvation (whatever that is) of intelligent aliens or should they be proselytized?