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What Does a Priest Think About Space Aliens?

my-alien-hiAnthony came to me with questions for a school project.  They have to do with the possible existence of “outer space” aliens.

1. Do you believe that life exists on other planets in the universe?  Why or why not?

This question requires certain specificity in both the asking and in responding.  First, what do you mean by life?  Catholicism has always taught that there is extraterrestrial life and that it is sentient.  However, this is in reference to angelic beings:  both the good angels and the demons.  They are spiritual creatures, not a composite of soul and meat like us.  (Please note that atheistic authorities would object that we are only “thinking meat” and that there is no spiritual component.  It is somewhat ironic that these same “experts” would insist that there must be life elsewhere in the universe, although there is no proof at present.  Further, they suffer from a type of terrestrial racism because they suppose that all alien life must be akin to us, either biological or by extension, mechanical.)

Second, if you mean to exclude angelic creatures, then as a reasonable man I am well aware of both the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox.  Half of all stars in the universe may have earth-like planets, but this in itself only gives us a probability, not a certainty.  We suppose an understanding of the conditions for life, like water, but what if we are too restrictive?  Might there be a world where the climate is hellish and the denizens breathe sulfur?  We know that there are micro-organisms on our planet that are dependent upon methane.

Third, even if 100,000 planets in our own galaxy might sustain life as we know it, would such life exist by necessity and/or would it be sentient?  While I think it likely that there is something “out there” even if microbial, there is no corresponding guarantee that it would be sentient.  Catholicism associates consciousness with self-reflective thinking.  The scholastics viewed this as not merely a property of the brain but of the soul.  We might live in a universe of plants, bugs and cattle.  The reason no one answers our calls into space might be because of the distances, but such could also be due to the fact that no one is listening or that no one cares to respond.  Intelligence could be of two orders, if it exists:  one would be like the ant or bee.  They know a genuine sophistication and a civilization (of sorts) might develop.  But they would be largely robots.  Concepts like freedom or compassion might be meaningless to them.

The second scenario would allow for genuine sentience and such creatures, if they exist, would be ensouled.  Here I think of C.S. Lewis and his creatures of Mars who had not fallen from grace and the Venusians who were just now facing their moral test in the garden.  Would such creatures suffer from original sin?  If so, then how and would Christ’s redemptive work include them?  What this means is that they would be asked if they are redeemed or damned.

A recent suggestion for the celestial silence is the theory that instead of federations of planets, star faring societies tend to wipe out the competition before they can become a threat.  If true, then there might be an armada of asteroids being directed to us and our sun as I speak.  There is no guarantee that aliens will be benevolent.

To answer your question, personally, I do not know if there is alien life.  Mathematical probabilities might be wrong.  We could possibly be alone in the material universe.  I do not know God’s mind about this.  Of course, given the various string theories, might life still exist in another universe?  Hum, where is heaven and hell, precisely?  The speculation about other dimensions in science may bring us back to the truths in religion.

2. How would you react, if actual proof of alien life were discovered?

It represents no challenge to faith.  The Creator made it all.  I would probably respond by saying a loud and drawn out, Wooooow!

3. Should humans travel into space?

Certainly we should not neglect the issues of earth by doing so; but, yes, I think that missions into space are part of our developmental trajectory as a species.  It reflects an important element of man’s intelligent curiosity.  There are things to know and resources to exploit.  I think there should be a chaplain on the International Space Station.  Indeed, I would argue for permanent bases on the moon before we tackle the more difficult task of establishing settlements on Mars.  There is no world in our solar system apart from earth that is hospitable to human life.  Whether or not Mars or one of the moons of the gas giants can be terraformed is a topic for science fiction and the distant future.

8 Responses

  1. Critical thinking is required to discover truth. That means the first order of business is to establish evidence to support or suggest the existence of a thing. Experimentation and observation can then be used to establish and confirm the truth. Catholic Doctrine encompasses everything that is correct, but nothing that is incorrect. Long before the discovery of the elements, the mathematical basis of physical mechanics and relativity, the big bang theory, gravity, heliocentrism, the spherical shape of the world, the true nature of stars and planets, that mothers are blood relation to their children, that illness is not wrath from the gods, that the sky is not a solid dome, that the universe is not eternal, that inanimate objects have no personality; these things were known! It’s just that no human knew them.

  2. A long time we have been here.
    The right questions you ask.
    Ready most are not.
    Blending into population is difficult.
    Masks we wear but they are caricatures.
    Animated are your faces while ours frozen.
    Blinks, twitches and randomness are too hard.
    Faith intrigues us but where do we stand?
    Lies and truth you people simultaneously tell.
    Communication is often at cross-purposes.
    Meaning lost when basic concepts not the same.
    Driven are you by fear and hatreds.
    Mayflies are you.
    A moment you are here then gone.
    Quickly everything changes for restless ones.
    Think and act we very slowly.
    Different are we very.
    But spark the same.

  3. Interesting post. My two cents:

    Personally, I have a hard time reconciling Christianity with the existence of intelligent lifeforms on other planets. Christianity places Christ at the center of God’s created universe (“I am the alpha and the omega”); it also portrays Man as God’s special little creature (“he the Lord created man in his likeness”). If there were intelligent life on other planets that possess the equivalent of Man’s soul, it would demean, if not eliminate, the uniqueness of Christ’s redemption. The Son of God assumed a human nature in order to redeem mankind. He would have to assume alien natures to redeem aliens, but scripture teaches that Christ’s death on Earth was his only death.

    FATHER JOE:

    My inclination is also to think that we are the lone sentient beings with souls in the material universe. But Catholic doctrine is flexible. Whatever the truth is, the truths of faith are certain.

    Are you assuming that aliens either need redemption or that God would want to save them? There was an interesting book written half a century, the title escapes me, written by a Jesuit, where he postulated that flying saucers might be either manned by angels or manifestations of the angelic, most probably demonic. It seemed a rather farfetched perspective.

    The doctrinal proposition you are proposing is this: “whatever is not assumed, is not redeemed.” Feminist theologians have often objected to it, saying that it implies that women are outside the full pallor of redemption. After all, God became man, not a woman. The Church, of course, supposes that it is sufficient that God has entered the human family. I suppose those who would make a speculative argument for aliens would have to say that it was sufficient to enter into creation, without regard to further specificity. I am not sure that such a rationale would fly. We trace original sin through sexual generation. The fall is attributed to our first parents and their sin damaged the harmony of the rest of visible creation. Our Lord becomes the new Adam, faithful where the first Adam was not. There may be no getting around the specificity. Christ died once and for all. This makes any repetition for other species into a heretical notion. I am not able to stretch my mind around cosmic possibilities like saying the redemptive work of Christ might have been a trans-dimensional event manifested differently on other worlds. I will wait and see. These other inhabited worlds may not exist.

    Furthermore, the arrival of intelligent aliens on Earth would probably discredit the Christianity in the eyes of most people. The Bible and Christian tradition say NOTHING about aliens. The aliens would probably be millions of years more advanced than humans. They would have more knowledge, more power, more history. If the aliens were atheists or uninterested in converting to Christianity, most people would conclude that Christianity is nothing more than primitive myth and superstition.

    FATHER JOE: We are both making all sorts of suppositions. But, as I said in the article, given the existence of angelic creatures, I think Christianity could weather the storm of any alien encounter. The Magisterium would discuss the event in light of the kerygma. While you suppose the aliens might be atheists, such might prove not to be the case. They could affirm all that we already know. My biggest fear is that if they exist, they might be like the ants or our computers. There is a type of intelligence which does not require a soul. We could thus encounter a species with no notion at all about a deity. The ultimate questions might never have been asked. Even if not creative, they might progress through mimicry and blind instinct. Such creatures would not feel, at least not like us. There would be coldness.

    Humans would look to the aliens rather than revelation for answers to life’s big questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What is our destiny?

    FATHER JOE: Given racial prejudice, I doubt there would be a big rush to join any alien hive or to adopt their metaphysics. Of course, doctrinal error and apostasy is possible. We see this all the time. It is more likely that alien contact would be the catalyst for new and false human religions or an anti-religion. As a priest, I believe that Christianity is true and that it signifies a special revelation to God’s people. It is a supernatural religion.

    For these reasons, I believe that UFOs might be demonic manifestations. They destroy faith in Christ’s revelation. They make people believe we’re on the brink of receiving “first contact” with an alien race that will give us all the answers: Maybe aliens created humans, maybe they have the secret to immortality, maybe they can bring an end to evil and suffering, maybe they have a “true” religion.

    FATHER JOE: This is very similar to the book by the Jesuit that I read when I was a boy. He thought the so-called aliens would attempt to lead us astray by lies and a false identification.

    Conclusion: Earth probably contains the only intelligent life in the universe. (See: Rare Earth Hypothesis). If there is any truth to the UFO phenomena, they are probably demonic rather than extraterrestrial. Of course, this is all just my opinion.

    FATHER JOE: I give no real credence to UFO aliens. Natural phenomena and hoaxes are misidentified. It is a big universe and nothing is close. I think it is quite possible that we are alone… except for God and the angels. But I am not absolutely sure about space aliens. I am not worried either way.

  4. Many of the experts I know about only agree that it seems reasonable likely, but we can’t know for sure (until we find it or have searched everywhere – which we will probably never succeed in). I have yet to hear from an expert who INSISTS that there MUST be life somewhere else. Could you quote some?

    FATHER JOE: Yes, I agree, it would seem so. I am not sure if there are any real experts who are absolutely certain.

  5. Very well written article Father Joe.
    Have you ever read James Blish’s nove A Case of Conscience?
    It is a story where a Jesuit priest goes to investigate a newly discovered alien race, and tries to determine whether they are fallen or not.

    Do you believe that some UFO’s might be extraterrestrial or extra dimensional?

    I think most humans would like to meet benevolent aliens but there is
    no guarantee that they are not evil. That is the fear.

    Think of what happened to primitive natives when they first met Europeans.

    FATHER JOE: My copy of the book is in fine leather. It is my favorite work of “Catholic” science fiction. As for actual aliens, I could not say where they come from… if they were to exist. I suspect that most UFOs are either natural phenomena or man-made.

  6. What about evangelizing alien species? Can aliens, not being sons of Adam, become Catholics and receive the Sacraments?

    FATHER JOE: Are they fallen? If not, they would not need the sacraments. If they have turned away from God, then providence might bring about such contact for their conversion. However, is redemption available outside the human family? It is a gift, not something we deserve or merit. We must also think outside our own racial/human prejudices. How would one evangelize a sentient species that spoke with clicks, ate only through absorbing nutrients through its roots, practiced asexual reproduction and conceptualized ideas without stories or parables?

  7. There is certainly credible evidence of UFOs, and they are obviously under intelligent control. Also, the rancher Mac Brazzel saw the 2 aliens in and next to the crashed spacecraft outside of Roswell, NM in July 1947. One alien was dazed, and the other appeared to be lifeless.
    Separately, when he had a near-death experience in 1983 or so, Howard Storm, college teacher, was told by a group of 4 angels, who’d been summoned by Jesus, that “there are many other worlds,” that “the best religion is the religion that brings you closest to God,” and that “the end of the world [earth] is already underway and is irrevocable.” [same prophecy issued by the 6 Medjugorje visionaries in the 1980s] Mr. Storm, who became a Lutheran pastor in Ohio, wrote a compelling account of his NDE and his rescue from Hell by Jesus, “My Descent Into Death,” and has appeared on several TV programs similar to the CNN show this week about the afterlife, hosted by Anderson Cooper.

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