Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Catholic Faith
A conversation with Paul Thigpen
Author Paul Thigpen earned a B.A. in religious studies from Yale University (1977) and an M.A. (1993) and Ph.D. (1995) in historical theology from Emory University, where he was awarded the George W. Woodruff Fellowship. In 2008, he was appointed as a lay representative on the National Advisory Council of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
He has published 35 books and more than 500 journal and magazine articles in more than 40 religious and secular periodicals for both scholarly and popular audiences. His work has been translated into 12 languages.
His latest book is Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Catholic Faith: Are We Alone in the Universe With God and the Angels? (TAN Books).
On July 15, he spoke via email to the Register.
Given your previous books on aspects of spiritual warfare, are the alleged encounters with extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) simply a form of demonic deception?
As even a few secular commentators on this matter have noted, some of the alleged “alien abduction” or “alien encounter” reports do seem to have parallels with historical and contemporary accounts of experiences that the Church recognizes to be diabolical. Even so, we can’t simply dismiss the entire phenomenon as a globally extended case of demonic deception. The great majority of sightings and personal experiences related to UFOs (“Unidentified Flying Objects’; aka UAPs, “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena”) don’t fit that pattern at all.
Is there anything from the saints that can help point us to an understanding of this subject?
Though they rarely addressed the matter directly, notable Fathers and Doctors of the Church (St. John Chrysostom, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and others) offer us theological insights that help us understand how the existence of ETI is possible from a Catholic perspective. More directly to the point: Pope St. John Paul II, St. Pio of Pietrelcina (Padre Pio), Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich and Venerable Andrea Beltrami were all reported to affirm the existence of ETI. Padre Pio’s comments about extraterrestrial races are especially intriguing, given his oft-demonstrated and verified gift of knowledge granted by God about hidden matters.
Is belief in ETI compatible with Catholic Church teaching?
After years of study and prayer, I’ve become convinced that it is. Some Christian theologians of the past have asserted that there can be no intelligent species other than humanity and the angels (fallen and unfallen). But their reasoning was most often flawed by a reliance on certain philosophical or scientific assumptions of ancient pagan philosophers that have proven to be wrong — such as the notion that planet Earth is the center of the universe. Others have insisted, for example, that the existence of other intelligent species would somehow diminish God’s special relationship with the human race. Yet, as St. John Paul II once said of aliens: “They are children of God as we are.”
Do the sacred Scriptures shed light on this topic?
Many have argued that ETI cannot exist because it’s not clearly stated in the Bible. Scripture, however, is also silent about atoms and microbes, dinosaurs and duck-billed platypuses; yet we know these things are indeed real. The Bible is not intended to be an exhaustive description of all that exists, and the knowledge of alien existence is not essential to our salvation.
Would the confirmed existence of ETI undermine the Christian faith, as some have claimed?
The Church could accommodate such new scientific knowledge, just as she did the 16th-century scientific revolution demonstrating that the Earth is not the center of the solar system. If we were to encounter directly an alien species, with the possibility of communication, the Church would, of course, have many questions to ask about their spiritual and moral status. The answers to those questions would then shape the Church’s response to such creatures. As we examine the issues involved, we’re pressed to delve much deeper into the meaning of traditional Catholic teaching about the omnipotence and creativity of God, the image of God in humanity, the fall of the human race, the nature of the Incarnation, the means and scope of redemption and the reality of the “last things.”
Why did you decide to write a book on this topic? And why now?
Though, as I’ve noted, this book is not primarily about UFOs, recent events of the last few years have brought that topic into international prominence in a new way. Most recently, the U.S. Congress held the first hearings on the topic in half a century because of the national security implications of countless intrusions into our air space and waters by crafts of unknown origin exhibiting behaviors that seem to defy physics as we know it. The Pentagon has finally admitted publicly that we cannot account for many such phenomena and that they must be studied. I’m confident that more congressional hearings will be held, and eventually we will learn much more about what the Pentagon and the intelligence community already know.
Meanwhile, several scientific organizations are now attempting to gather data about UFOs on their own, and their findings will be made public. If we are moving toward a public, authoritative disclosure confirming the existence of ETI, Catholics need to be prepared to incorporate that new information into their understanding of the universe. But they need not fear that such a discovery or disclosure would undermine their faith.
What do you make of the seeming growing fascination with the paranormal and related topics in the wider media? Is there a potential positive at play here for evangelization?
I’m convinced that in a world where our communion with God, the angels and the saints has been denied, people will seek out paranormal “communion” with anything out there that seems to be personal and beyond the confines of our mundane lives. The result has been disastrous for those who for this reason have delved deeply into the occult.
With that in mind, I do warn those with an interest in UFOs to avoid seeking in the possibility of extraterrestrials some substitute for the reality of God. They must especially reject what has come to be known as the “ETI myth” — the notion that salvation will finally come to our sinful Earth through extraterrestrials who have “evolved” into a higher plane of consciousness. That’s a false hope.
Meanwhile, yes, this situation presents a marvelous opportunity for sharing our faith. Many secular people today have been led to embrace not science, but scientism—the presumption that science is the only reliable source of knowledge and that whatever science cannot account for must not exist. This mistaken claim excludes the existence of God, angels, miracles, heaven and much more.
Even so, many of these people, through their interest in UFOs and the paranormal, are now being pressed out of that materialist worldview by what they are learning about these subjects. I’m glad to see them slowly escaping the cage of a merely mechanical cosmos composed strictly of impersonal matter and energy. They have begun moving instead toward the glorious horizon of an infinite, personal, loving, redeeming God — and I want to help them on that journey of discovery.