A study released this fall posits that the universe has at least 2 trillion galaxies, 10 times the number previously thought. Scientists say the probability is high that one of those galaxies has a solar system with a planet that sustains life.
Some creationists insist that life exists only on Earth and point to the fact that no evidence of extraterrestrials has been found. But that has not been the Catholic approach.
“Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on Earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God,” Jesuit Father José Funes, then head of the Vatican Observatory, said in 2008. “This is not in contrast with our faith because we can’t put limits on God’s creative freedom.”
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, new president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, says it’s only a matter of time before we encounter extraterrestrial life.
Brother Guy, a planetary scientist who has studied meteorites and asteroids, says the discovery will pave the way to questions on salvation and how it relates to intelligent species.
If we’re not alone in the universe, what are the implications for our Christian story, in which God became incarnate on our planet and worked human salvation?
‘God loves his people’
“Scripture says Jesus is king of the universe,” says Father Bill Holtzinger, pastor of St. Anne Parish in Grants Pass. Father Holtzinger, who speaks and writes on the relationship of faith and science, says either way, it’s stunning: If we’re alone, we are pretty impressive; if we are part of a bustling cosmos, we have been cherished by the Creator despite our smallness.
“I come up with the same conclusion,” Father Holtzinger says. “God loves his people.”
The priest assumes that if there is other life in the universe, chances are it’s in need of a savior. He laughingly recalls the so-called perfect civilizations visited by the crew in “Star Trek” television shows and films. Things were never as ideal as they seemed.
“The savior would be incarnated in the form of those he is coming to save,” Father Holtzinger theorizes. He knows that the notion of a savior in other life forms may be disturbing, but says that would follow the pattern set on Earth.
“It used to be people thought the Mediterranean was the whole world, then the East and the West, then the globe,” Father Holtzinger says. “Science gives us more and more. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
A matter of degree
Jesuit Father Michael Maher, a theologian at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, remembers 1969. In addition to the moon landing, that was the year Pope Paul VI changed the feast of Christ the King to the “Feast of Christ King of the Universe,” just in case life were discovered elsewhere.
“What will happen if we find life on Mars?” Father Maher asks. “It would be no different than finding the Chinese in the age of discovery. If the Jesus event begins in Jerusalem, it expands and the expansion in space is just a matter of degree, not a whole new thing.”
When Catholic missionaries encountered Chinese civilization, it was more advanced than in Europe. Jesuit Father Matteo Ricci wrote of deeply moral people who had never heard the Ten Commandments or the Beatitudes. That was a theological problem to solve. It eventually broadened everyone’s idea of God’s power and revealed the multipronged nature of goodness, beauty and truth.
For Europeans in the 16th century, the trek across the Atlantic was not different than our hoped-for trips across space. Father Maher reminds students that the Europeans called North and South America “The New World.”
The encounter with extraterrestrial life may follow the same path, the priest says.
A cosmic event?
Jesuit Father Christopher Corbally, president of the National Committee for Astronomy at the Vatican and a member of the International Astronomical Union, says St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure paved the way in the 13th century for an expansive understanding of creation.
“They put more emphasis on the incarnation being cosmic,” says Father Corbally, who works at the Vatican Observatory at the University of Arizona. “The idea is to complete the cosmos in Christ. The incarnation is not an Earth-based event; it is a cosmic event.”
Should we humans feel less valuable, since we may be among a crowd of sentient life forms among the galaxies? The answer is no, according to a long line of Catholic thinkers.
By the mid-19th century, an astronomer-priest named Angelo Secchi was observing the massive splendor of the universe and speculated that God and God’s love must be boundless, too. The Jesuit now has a crater on Mars named for him.
“Think of the billions of people on Earth,” Father Corbally says. “How could God possibly love me? Well, you and I would have trouble recalling all the names and faces. But not God. What we forget is that God is infinite. God can love anyone, wherever they are in the universe.”
Father Funes, the former Vatican Observatory chief, confirms the idea of God’s boundless love, but is not ready to accept the idea of incarnations elsewhere. “The discovery of intelligent life does not mean there’s another Jesus,” Funes told Agence France-Presse in 2015. “The incarnation of the son of God is a unique event in the history of humanity, of the universe.”