The Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Vatican Observatory recently brought together a group of scholars who study astrobiology, that is, the possibility of some kind of life existing elsewhere in the universe.
The media immediately seized on the convocation as a sign that the Pope was affirming the existence of intelligent extraterrestrials. This notion was given an unfortunate nudge forward by statements from Jesuit Father Jose Gabriel Funes, an astronomer who now directs the Vatican Observatory. “How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?” Father Funes has said before, in an interview in the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. “Just as there is a multitude of creatures on Earth, there could be other beings, even intelligent ones, created by God. This does not contradict our faith, because we cannot put limits on God’s creative freedom.”
This is one of those issues ripe for considerable confusion. How do I know? Because the question of whether there is intelligent life beyond Earth has been an issue ripe for confusion for well over two millennia. The enchantment with aliens is very old hat, and a short review of the history of its embarrassing tendencies should be enough to make us very, very cautious of alien enthusiasm entering the Church.
Space (pardon the pun) doesn’t permit a full historical review. Suffice it to say that what’s gone before all adds up to a very important maxim: The more we know, the less likely alien life becomes. The advance of science points to the inhospitableness of most of the universe for life.
Having said that, it does seem likely that there’s got to be some form of life out there somewhere. After all, there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. But the closest galaxy to ours is the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s 2.5 million light years from Earth; that is, on rough calculation, somewhere around 14,109,600,000,000,000,000 miles away. And there’s a big difference between life and intelligent living beings.
Think about it. Even if it were possible to travel at the speed of light, and even if some other intelligent creatures had developed technology far more quickly than we did, they would have to have lived for two and a half million years of space travel (as the crow flies) to find us. How likely is that?
And now we can return to the embarrassments of history I mentioned earlier because it allows us to make a very serious point in regard to the possible existence of intelligent aliens and Christian theology.
Again, speculations about intelligent extraterrestrial life are old hat. They began in the centuries before Christ and were offered up by the philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius. Epicurus and Lucretius disliked religion, arguing that it caused no end of miseries for humanity. Against the notion of a creator God, they asserted that mere chance, by jostling atoms, came up with not only our world, but endless others peopled by even more intelligent life. That’s a warning sign.
But atheism is not the only source of Alienmania. In a rather arcane conflict in the late 1200s, the bishop of Paris, one Etienne Tempier, condemned the position that God “cannot make more than one world.” Bishop Tempier was not trying to argue for aliens, but against those who asserted that it was beyond God’s power to create more than one world.
Pretty soon, however, theologians were wildly asserting that God must have created all kinds of ETs. In the mid-1400s, Nicholas of Cusa assured us that “in the area of the sun there exist solar beings, bright and enlightened intellectual denizens, and by nature more spiritual than such as may inhabit the moon.”
That was only the beginning. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the world’s top astronomers were assuring everyone that every planet in our solar system, and the sun itself, was crawling with intelligent life. Even the great Johann Bode tried to give a theological explanation: The “most wise author of the world,” he said, would “certainly not permit … the great ball of the sun to be empty of creations and still less of rational inhabitants who are ready gratefully to praise the author of life.”
Based on the “scientific” certainty of extraterrestrial life on the moon, Mars, Jupiter, Venus, all the rest of the planets and the sun, well-intentioned Christians started redefining Christian dogma accordingly, trying to make room for aliens with the incarnation of Christ.
That is embarrassing. It’s also a foolish mistake we must not repeat. What science does indeed know, with ever greater certainty, is the increasing improbability of extraterrestrial life. The ever slimmer possibility remaining should make us quite sober in our speculations, especially as they touch matters of our faith.
Ben Wiker is online at