In a lecture that the late Vatican Observatory cosmologist, Father William R. Stoeger, SJ gave to the Desert Foothills Astronomy Club in Anthem, AZ in 2012 he stated –
“Something we often forget: We are part of Nature, and products of the Universe. Thus, we are intimately related to all that is.”
Lately there has been much discussion about the search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI) and whether or not UFOs and Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) are of alien origin.
Fr. Stoeger (Fr. Bill to those who knew him) did not talk about alien life, but instead his lectures taught us about our place in Creation and how we relate to it.
And isn’t our search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) really a desire to understand our place in God’s Creation?
Fr. Bill and other cosmologists believe that the Universe is Fine-tuned for complexity – referred to as the Anthropic Principle.
They say that Creation is bio-friendly – it has the physical properties that are necessary for the existence of intelligent life.
The Hubble telescope and the James West Space Telescope have provided proof that stars other than our Sun have planetary systems. Many of these exoplanets reside in a “habitable zone” or “Goldilocks zone”, that area around a star that would support liquid water on or within an exoplanet given sufficient planetary atmospheric pressure and temperature. This is important because biologists state that “on Earth water means life” so our search for life elsewhere in Creation begins by looking for water.
What have scientists been thinking about ET? In 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi asked a few friends during lunch at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico “Where is everybody?”. He noted that a simple calculation shows that our galaxy is old enough (10 billion years of age) for a civilization that emerged a bit before us (a few million years) to have colonized the entire galaxy.
But Fermi was not the first to speculate about life elsewhere in the Cosmos. Theologian and Adjunct Scholar of the Vatican Observatory, Fr. Giuseppe Tanzella-nitti SJ, states in his article “Extraterrestrial Life” that the historical debate about a possible plurality of inhabited worlds has been widely documented. He states that –
“The theme of cosmic life is brought to today’s culture by science, not philosophy. It reaches the public mostly through the mass media, literature of different genres, and certain other artistic expressions.”
Humans are curious creatures. Starting with our earliest formative years when we first become aware of our surroundings, we continually ask the question – “Why?” We want to know where we fit-in in the scheme of things. And now, with the astounding revelations provided by current astronomical research, our curiosity is expanding into a need to understand our place in Creation, by searching for other creatures that we hope might help us to understand where we are. But with all of the advanced technology that we possess, there is absolutely no scientific proof that life exists anywhere other than on our home, the planet Earth. No UFOs, no “sightings”, no data from robotic spacecraft that we have sent into our solar system, has provided proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life. No proof at all.
Br. Guy Consolmagno SJ, Director of the Vatican Observatory, says in the book Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? “I want to state, with whatever authority I have as a scientist and as one of the ‘Official Astronomers’ at the Vatican Observatory: Neither I, nor anyone I know, has any evidence that extraterrestrials exist.”
There is no proof but what about the possibility of alien life? In an interview, Fr. Jose Funes, SJ, a previous director of the Vatican Observatory, said it was difficult to exclude the possibility that other intelligent life exists because “Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. And this is not in contrast with faith, because, and this is important to understand – we cannot place limits on the creative freedom of God.” He said, “To paraphrase St. Francis’ – if we consider earthly creatures as ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters,’ why can’t we also speak of ‘extraterrestrial brothers and sisters?”
And regarding theological speculations about other beings, Fr. Tanzella-nitti says that the last word on the question of extraterrestrial life must not come from theology, but from science. He states that the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church has no official teachings regarding ET life.
He further comments – “Concerning the personal history of other possible intelligent beings, responsible for their freedom before the Creator of everything, we humans cannot say anything. We can affirm, however, that, as creatures, the mystery of Christ, the incarnate Word, would not be extraneous to them. The existence of intelligent life on planets other than Earth is neither required nor excluded by any theological argument. Theologians, like the rest of the human race, have to wait and see.”
Even Pope Francis commented on aliens on May 13, 2014, during a Mass at the Vatican that “If – for example – tomorrow an expedition of Martians came, and some of them came to us, here … Martians, right? Green, with that long nose and big ears, just like children paint them … And one says, ‘But I want to be baptized!’ What would happen?” the Roman Catholic Church leader theorized, as reported by Vatican Radio.
In his speech focused on the question of “Who are we to close the doors to the Holy Spirit?” he said that baptism is open to everyone, and reminded the audience of the words of Peter: “If then God gave aliens the same gift He gave to us when we came to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to be able to hinder God?”
Ultimately, as we search for our place in Creation, we need to ask – What are we looking for? What are we hoping to find? Are we hoping that an advanced civilization can provide answers to the struggles of our existence or to the secrets of Creation? Can they teach us the path to attaining salvation? Do we hope that an advanced life form will provide to solution to our problems, or do we fear they will come to destroy us?
Fr. Tanzella-nitti provides perspective in his paper “Plurality of Worlds and Christian Faith” –
“The ‘Big Questions,’ the great existential and religious questions, those that characterize our human species, will certainly remain unresolved even after a contact/dialogue with other intelligent creatures:
- Why does the universe exist?
- What is the meaning of human life?
- Is there any reason for the innocent pain?
- Why are the universe and we humans on the Earth bond to die?
- Why do we have the desire for a love without end, the desire for an eternal life?”
He says that other intelligent beings who share our “creaturely-ness” would be unable to provide exhaustive answers to all that. If these beings exist, they too will ask themselves these questions, just the same as we ourselves do.
Let us consider that our search for extraterrestrial life is really a search for an understanding of what it means to be human in God’s Creation, and for a deeper understanding about our relationship to the Creator.
We are reminded that St. Ignatius found God everywhere: in the poor, in prayer, in the Mass, in his fellow Jesuits, in his work, and, most touchingly, on a balcony of the Jesuit house in Rome, where he loved to gaze up silently at the stars at night. During these times he would shed tears in wonder and adoration. In this vision of Ignatius let us seek to “find God in all things”
We are thankful that a loving God gave us a wonderful Universe to explore. Scripture tells us that “God looked at everything he had made and found it very good.”
Ignatian spirituality teaches us that as we learn about Creation we learn about the Creator. What is beautiful is that there is no distance between God and God’s Creation. God is the fundamental source of Being.
Finally, to put into perspective our search for life in Creation, I will let Fr. Bill remind us why it is necessary to understand our place in Creation –
“Cosmology reveals a vast, complex, and very ancient universe in which we are very tiny and apparently insignificant; but faith reveals a God who deeply treasures and cares for each creature.”
“Each is part of the truth about reality, and we are intimately related to all that is.”
About the Author:
James Renn is a coordinator for the Vatican Observatory Foundation’s Ambassador Program, and is himself the Ambassador for the Diocese of Phoenix, Arizona.
About the Cover Image:
The Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) is a centimeter-wavelength radio astronomy observatory in the southwestern United States.
Image Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF, Jeff Hellerman