The Vatican and Little Green Men

Here's the curious thing about the head of the Vatican’s astronomical observatory saying there’s a strong likelihood that extraterrestrial beings exist and that they are part of God’s plan: not the “what,” but the “when,” as in “why now?”

In the long interview he gave the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano yesterday, Father José Gabriel Funes, a Jesuit priest from Argentina, called the existence of extraterrestrials a real possibility. “Astronomers contend that the universe is made up of a hundred billion galaxies, each of which is composed of hundreds of billions of stars,” he correctly noted. (The interview was headlined The Extra-terrestrial Is My Brother.) “Many of these, or almost all of them, could have planets. [So] how can you exclude that life has developed somewhere else?”

For all the attention they got, however, Funes’ comments do not exactly break new ground, as my colleague Edward Pentin, who covers the Vatican for Newsweek, points out. In 2005 Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno wrote a 50-page booklet, Intelligent Life in the Universe, published by the Catholic Truth Society, in which he makes the standard astronomical points—lots of galaxies, lots of stars, some with planets, some of which may have conditions conducive to life. (Theological question: can God create life only in places with the right conditions? Or could He create life where there is, for instance, no water, or where the temperatures are too hot or too cold? If not, why not?).

But the Vatican has never denied the findings of contemporary astronomy, which is now up to 288 “extrasolar” planets (that is, those that orbit a star beyond our own solar system), including one whose atmosphere contains organic molecules, the ingredients of life, as I blogged in March. As Consolmagno put it, “There is nothing in Holy Scripture that could confirm, or contradict, the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe,” which means that telescopes and not the bible will be the only reliable guide to the question.

In his L’Osservatore interview, Fr. Funes echoed that, declaring that “As there exist many creatures on earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God. This doesn’t contradict our faith because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God.”

In asking whether little green men might be guilty of original sin, we are obviously in the realm of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.” But the theologian astronomers don’t blink. Fr. Funes said he was sure that, if aliens needed redemption, they “in some way, would have the chance to enjoy God’s mercy.” Consolmagno was more explicit: there’s no problem in getting the Son of God to every planet with ETs because, as Christians accept every Sunday during the Holy Eucharist, “Christ is truly, physically present in a million places, and sacrificed a million times, every day at every sacrifice of the Mass.”

So if the Catholic Church has accepted the possibility of aliens for a while now, why the high-profile interview in the Vatican newspaper? Applying the techniques of Kremlinology to St. Peter’s, Edward Pentin’s sources tell him it might be part of a push to demonstrate the Vatican’s embrace of science (in 1992 it apologized for that whole unfortunate Galileo mess, after all). Toward the end of

Interestingly, the Vatican has plans to host a conference in Rome next spring to mark the 150th anniversary of the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin’s seminal work on the theory of evolution. Conference organizers say it will look beyond entrenched ideological positions—including misconstrued creationism. The Vatican says it wants to reconsider the problem of evolution “with a broader perspective” and says an “appropriate consideration is needed more than ever before.”

“We hope this will really be an example of how to hold an open discussion without overtones,” Gennaro Auletta, director of science and philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University, told Pentin. “We simply wish to dialogue between people whose mission is to understand a little more.” Those who see science as a dogma and unchangeable are being unscientific, he believes.

That is a striking statement coming from a scholar with close ties to the Vatican, for the latest slander against science is that it is just as dogmatic and closed-minded as religion. (A theme that the execrable and fallacious film, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” pounds away at.)

Contrary to much conventional wisdom, the Church has often been in science’s corner.