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Aliens Theological Debate

Who might be out there?
by Andrew Walther | Source:

“Child, look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things. In the same way the human race came into existence.”  — 2 Maccabees 7:28

PASADENA, Calif. ( — In 1938 panic gripped the United States when Orson Welles broadcast his radio dramatization of the War of the Worlds, a story of hostile Martians invading New Jersey.

Martian life is again in the news. In 2004, a vehicle from Earth — NASA’s Spirit probe — that was looking for signs of simple, nonconfrontational life on Mars.

The probe and the images it has sent back to Earth have captivated the imaginations of millions, and even Vatican astronomers applaude NASA’s effort. Jesuit Father George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, told Catholic News Service the successful landing was “a huge breakthrough.”

The Spirit probe will search the planet’s surface for water or traces of past water in order to help determine whether life exists or could have existed on the “Red Planet.”

“The idea is to follow the water” in search of life, said Ernest Koeppen, owner of La Canada, Calif.-based Digisync Media. Koeppen’s company has worked closely with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other organizations involved in the mission to provide streaming Internet video from the probe.

“This is a very popular project,” he said.

“Water is needed for life, and such a discovery would open up all-new questions as to is there life there now or had there been once upon a time,” Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, told Catholic News Service.

Father Coyne said there is even more at stake.

“What would be truly incredible would be to discover life on Mars that’s independent of life on Earth,” he said.

He explained that in the early stages of planets’ formation, a lot of material was exchanged between Mercury, Venus, Mars and Earth.

“So it is conceivable that life may have transported itself in these primordial exchanges when pieces of planets plummeted into each other,” he said.

“But what if scientists were to discover life that has nothing to do with the DNA we have here on Earth?” he asked. “That would mean life is absolutely abundant in the universe. If life had two beginnings, one here on Earth and one on Mars, then statistically life could have emerged millions of times elsewhere beyond the solar system.”

Odds Are High

While the project is looking for simple life forms, not the terrifying, bellicose Martians of the War of the Worlds, projects such as SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence, quietly continue, and Mars probes have once again focused attention on the fact that scientists believe it possible life could exist beyond Earth.

Some Catholic thinkers have weighed in on whether there is extraterrestrial life, what kind of life there might be and what its relationship to the Creator might be like. Scientists such as Father Coyne, believe we might not be the only intelligent life in the universe. The Church has not taken a definitive stance on the issue.

In a statement he provided to the Register, Father Coyne explained that his calculations indicate that at least 1,017 Earth-like planets are likely to exist in the universe.

As a result, he stated: “If we emphasize the word ‘might,’ then it makes eminent sense to think of extraterrestrial intelligent life.”

But Ben Wiker, who teaches theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is a Register columnist, believes Father Coyne is misguided. Wiker cited two books, Rare Earth by Donald Brownlee and Peter Ward, and the forthcoming Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, which argue the possibility of extraterrestrial life is almost zero.

Wiker argued in a November 2002 Crisis magazine article that the theory of extraterrestrial intelligent beings was begun by the atomists in ancient Greece — men whose purpose was to rid the world of religion. That is yet another reason to be skeptical of the entire idea, he said.

He also worried that speculating on the theological effects of the discovery of extraterrestrials — which he considers, at best, highly unlikely — would be dangerous.

“I think such speculation is entirely worthless, or better, simply pernicious. As the history of such speculation amply shows, all it has ever done is cause the warping of essential theological doctrines,” he said.

Moreover, he argued, it is not the role of religion to keep up with the latest scientific theory.

“Think how foolish we would appear today if the Catholic Church had modified its doctrine of redemption to make room” for creatures who allegedly live on the sun, Venus, Mercury, Mars and the moon, he wrote.

However, Father Coyne has been quoted as saying that while the idea of extraterrestrials would pose “many questions,” science does not “destroy the believer’s faith but stimulates it.”

Another View

One of those questions, Father Coyne said in an interview with the Register, is, “If Jesus Christ is true God and true man, could he also be true God and true Martian?”

Dominican Father Thomas O’Meara, a theologian who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, believes discussing both the possibility of extraterrestrials and theological implications is fair game, and he indicated the theological fallout of such a discovery would be minor.

“It isn’t a challenge to any of the teachings on the New Testament drawing on the Old Testament,” he said.

According to Father O’Meara, the Bible “describes God’s plan for our planet, not planets we don’t know anything else about.”

For historical support, Father O’Meara cites St. Bonaventure, who wrote, “[God] was able to make a hundred such worlds, and still one embracing all of them.” He also pointed out that the 15th-century Franciscan Guillaume de Vaurouillon was the first to raise the issue in the context of the redemption.

Father O’Meara further explained that St. Thomas Aquinas “affirmed” that a divine person “could be incarnate in another species.”

In Father O’Meara’s opinion, “perhaps a million times, God has said as in Genesis, ‘Come, let us make new beings in our own image and likeness.’”

The Dominican said he is inclined to believe the statistics touted by various scientists indicating a high likelihood of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, and he said he believes their estimates to be “quite conservative.”

“Christian faith should not presume to decide whether there are other free beings in the universe,” the theologian has written. “That does belong to discovery and science. For believers, however, this remains a possibility first because God is free to lead creatures on other planets in a development of life and of intelligent life.”

Wiker, however, in his article, after listing many now-debunked theories of extraterrestrials — including that they might live on the sun, the moon, Mars, etc. — offers this caveat to those who believe in the possibility of extraterrestrials: “The best remedy for theologians so inclined is a long, deep draught of the elixir of history, especially the history of science, where it becomes evident that today’s verities are often tomorrow’s absurdities.”

Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.

(Files from Catholic News Service, Zenit news agency and the Associated Press contributed to this report.) 

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Post a Comment
Published by: James M. Essig
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
Given the recent confirmation of the existence of water ice on Mars by the newly arrived Pheonix Mars Lander Probe, I had the following thoughts about what extraterrestrial intellegent life forms with bodies might be like on other planets. Some such beings, if they exist may be better in some ways than us and we may be better in some ways then them.

Published by: Maria
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
I think God could do whatever He pleases. So it is very plausible that He being the Creator could have created other planets, species, people...

Published by: James M. Essig
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
Given the recent confirmation of the existence of water ice on Mars by the newly arrived Pheonix Mars Lander Probe, I had the following thoughts about what extraterrestrial intellegent life forms with bodies might be like on other planets. Some such beings, if they exist may be better in some ways than us and we may be better in some ways then them.

Published by: Maria
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
I think God could do whatever He pleases. So it is very plausible that He being the Creator could have created other planets, species, people...

Published by: James M. Essig
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
Given the recent confirmation of the existence of water ice on Mars by the newly arrived Pheonix Mars Lander Probe, I had the following thoughts about what extraterrestrial intellegent life forms with bodies might be like on other planets. Some such beings, if they exist may be better in some ways than us and we may be better in some ways then them.

Published by: Maria
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
I think God could do whatever He pleases. So it is very plausible that He being the Creator could have created other planets, species, people...

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