The Vatican is holding a conference dedicated to examining that very question:
ROME — A little more than a half-mile from the Vatican, in a square called Campo de’ Fiori, stands a large statue of a brooding monk. Few of the shoppers and tourists wandering through the fruit-and-vegetable market below may know his story; he is Giordano Bruno, a Renaissance philosopher, writer and free-thinker who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600. Among his many heresies was his belief in a “plurality of worlds” — in extraterrestrial life, in aliens.
Though it’s a bit late for Bruno, he might take satisfaction in knowing that this week the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences is holding its first major conference on astrobiology, the new science that seeks to find life elsewhere in the cosmos and to understand how it began on Earth. Convened on private Vatican grounds in the elegant Casina Pio IV, formerly the pope’s villa, the unlikely gathering of prominent scientists and religious leaders shows that some of the most tradition-bound faiths are seriously contemplating the possibility that life exists in myriad forms beyond this planet. Astrobiology has arrived, and religious and social institutions — even the Vatican — are taking note.
Father Jose Funes, a Jesuit astronomer, director of the centuries-old Vatican Observatory and a driving force behind the conference, suggested in an interview last year that the possibility of “brother extraterrestrials” poses no problem for Catholic theology. “As a multiplicity of creatures exists on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God,” Funes explained. “This does not conflict with our faith because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God.”
The reality, though, is that it would seem that the existence of intelligent life outside Earth would put a stake through the heart of some of the central themes of Christianity:
“The real threat would come from the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, because if there are beings elsewhere in the universe, then Christians, they’re in this horrible bind. They believe that God became incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ in order to save humankind, not dolphins or chimpanzees or little green men on other planets.”
Davies explained the tensions within the Catholic Church: “If you look back at the history of Christian debate on this, it divides into two camps. There are those that believe that it is human destiny to bring salvation to the aliens, and those who believe in multiple incarnations,” he said, referencing the belief that Christ could have appeared on other planets at other times. “The multiple incarnations is a heresy in Catholicism.” (As Giordano Bruno learned.)
Many Protestant scholars agree with Funes, saying that the discovery of extraterrestrial life would not pose a major challenge to their faith or theology, especially if it was not intelligent or morally aware. But on the evangelical side, there is a deep concern, one reminiscent of the battles over evolution. “My theological perspective is that E.T. life would actually make a mockery of the very reason Christ came to die for our sins, for our redemption,” Gary Bates, head of Atlanta-based Creation Ministries International, told me recently in a critique of the Vatican conference. Bates believes that “the entire focus of creation is mankind on this Earth” and that intelligent, morally aware extraterrestrial life would undermine that view and belief in the incarnation, resurrection and redemption drama so central to the faith. “It is a huge problem that many Christians have not really thought about,” he said.
It is increasingly difficult to assume that our sun and planet are the only ones capable of supporting complex and evolved life — the kind of life that Christians might assume would be in need of salvation. Questions inevitably follow: Are Christianity and, to some extent, other religions only stories about life on Earth? And if they are not “universal” in a cosmic sense, does that diminish their significance?
The answer would seem to inevitably be yes.
Even more so that the Copernican Revolution, or Darwinian evolution, the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere — life which may or may not have it’s own form of a belief in a god and which may believe that it is the central story of that god’s creation — would seem to pretty clear be the end of the universality of any religion that claims Earth as the center of God’s universe.
It may be a long time before the Vatican has to deal with the reality of that discovery, but its implications remain clear.