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Issue Date:  February 27, 2004

This time, Catholic church is ready

Theologians see little problem if push to space yields discovery of life on other planets


When President George Bush announced an ambitious new $12 billion space program in mid-January, whose lofty goals include putting humans once again on the moon and eventually on Mars, he said “The desire to explore and understand is part of our character.”

What Bush did not add, however, is that also part of our character is feeling threatened by exploration and new understanding, a tendency at times especially pronounced in religious communities. From the Galileo case in the 17th century to the Scopes Monkey Trial in the early 20th, conflicts between religious belief and scientific discoveries have caused some of the most cataclysmic cultural earthquakes in Western history.

-- Pat Marrin

Yet Catholic experts say that if the “Bush push” into space does yield dramatic new discoveries -- including the most sought-after finding of all, life on other planets -- this time the church is ready.

“Christians have always understood that the entire cosmos is a creation of God, that any life anywhere is a divine creation,” said Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia, undersecretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal oversight agency.

“There would be absolutely no motive for scandal” if scientists were to establish the existence of life elsewhere, Di Noia told NCR Jan. 21.

Jesuit Fr. Gerald O’Collins of the Gregorian University agreed.

“I don’t think the discovery of life on other planets would pose a qualitatively different challenge than the discovery of the New World,” O’Collins told NCR. “Prior to the 15th century, people had only the vaguest idea about human life on the other side of the Atlantic. Yet we survived that, and in the end it deepened our understanding of Christ as a truly universal savior.”

Part of the reason, observers say, that the Catholic church is better positioned today to handle the intellectual strain of new scientific breakthroughs is because Pope John Paul II has tried to settle accounts with the past, most prominently the Galileo case.

Historical debate surrounding Galileo goes on, with some scholars insisting that the church never played the obscurantist role assigned to it in popular mythology. Copernicus’ 1543 book proposing the theory that the sun was at the center of things was dedicated to Pope Paul III, they point out, and Copernicus himself was considered for nomination as a bishop, a sign that no one regarded his ideas, which Galileo would later popularize, as heretical. The real debate, these historians say, was between scientists committed to the old Ptolemaic model of the universe and the new heliocentric model. Galileo’s enemies, they say, dragged the church into this fight by making his stand appear as a challenge to ecclesiastical authority.

Such revisionism aside, John Paul convened a working group in 1981 to study the affair, and on Oct. 31, 1992, he received their work. The pope identified what he sees as the moral of the story.

“From the Galileo case,” the pope said, “we can draw a lesson that is applicable today in analogous cases which arise in our times and which may arise in the future. ... It often happens that, beyond two partial points of view which are in contrast, there exists a wider view of things which embraces both and integrates them.”

In other words, there should be no conflict between religion and science -- a perspective some say has deep Catholic roots.

Italian journalist Mario Gargantini, who writes on issues of faith and science, told a Jan. 13 seminar at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum, a pontifical university, that medieval Christianity, often reviled as anti-intellectual, actually made the birth of modern science possible with its belief in the rationality and unity of the cosmos.

Aside from the well-worn example of Gregor Mendel, the 19th-century Augustinian monk who invented the science of genetics, Gargantini cited several other instances of Catholics who made contributions to science precisely because of their faith convictions. They include Niccolò Stenone, a 17th-century Catholic bishop and one of the founders of the modern discipline of geology (beatified in 1986 as part of John Paul’s efforts at rapprochement with science); Francesco Faà di Bruno, a 19th-century priest and mathematician (canonized in 1988); and Giuseppe Moscati, a 19th- and 20th-century lay doctor (canonized in 1987).

None of this is to suggest that things are always harmonious between the church and science. Every time a medical researcher announces a new step toward human cloning, for example, church officials can be relied upon to serve up a disapproving response. The most recent example came Jan. 19, when U.S. doctor Panos Zavos claimed at a London press conference that he has implanted a cloned embryo in a woman’s womb, and officials in the Vatican expressed dismay.

On a whole range of issues, from Alzheimer’s re-search using fetal tissue to new and improved techniques of in vitro fertilization, the Vatican often plays the role of “Doctor No.”

At the same time, however, the Vatican can sometimes be open to new scientific developments in ways that surprise those who regard it as a quasi-Luddite foe of new technologies. Over the past year, for example, the Vatican has taken a “proceed with caution” attitude on genetically modified organisms to the consternation of environmental groups, activists for Third World farmers, and even some Catholic bishops in Africa.

Gargantini said that where the church and science collide, it’s sometimes because the church is playing a unique role in Western culture as the “conscience” of science. He cited the message delivered by Pope Paul VI on July 20, 1969 -- the day of the first moon landing -- as an especially poignant example.

-- Pat Marrin

In his Angelus address that day, Pope Paul marveled at the technical accomplishment behind the moon landing, but warned against a possible “idolatry of technology” that risks trivializing the human person. The pope said that no technical wizardry can ever resolve the basic questions of “What is the human being?” and “What is good?”

The sang-froid theologians are showing today about space exploration may be sufficient for the kinds of life explorers are most likely to encounter: fledgling strains of plants or micro-cellular organisms. But what if a more “X-Files”-style scenario were to develop, in which rovers on Mars or elsewhere actually meet sentient, intelligent beings?

“If there are other persons in the universe, we can at least say that they too are involved in the same divine plan and are intended to share in the Trinitarian communion of life,” Di Noia said.

If personal life were to be discovered, both Di Noia and O’Collins said it would require some theological tinkering, especially with the concept of original sin. How can persons on other planets share in the stain of guilt derived from Adam and Eve, from whom they are most probably not descended? Yet if they don’t, what exactly is the condition from which Christ has redeemed them?

Di Noia said the prospect of encountering personal life is so remote, his instinct is to “worry about it when it happens.” The most that can be said, he told NCR, is that all creatures in the universe are included in God’s plan for salvation.

“We’d have to work on it a little bit, I suppose,” O’Collins said. “But anyone who thinks the doctrine of original sin is more important than Jesus being the universal savior already has their priorities out of line.”

In the end, O’Collins said, if there are extraterrestrials, Christians can state with confidence that they too are saved by Christ, even if the question of saved from what will take some reflection.

Another perspective comes from Jesuit Fr. George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatory, which has its headquarters in Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer residence outside Rome, and research facilities in Arizona.

At the moment, scientists are working on a new generation of ultra-powerful telescopes that will be able to scan planets outside the earth’s solar system for signs of life. The technology for this “Large Binocular Telescope” is based on a technique pioneered by the Vatican observatory team, so ironically, if extraterrestrial life is discovered though the lens of one of these instruments, it will have been the Catholic church that paved the way.

Coyne provocatively suggests that stars are like “God’s sperm.”

Every sperm has the potential to produce life, he says, but most of them never realize that goal. Like sperm, Coyne said in a 2003 interview, “each star is fired with a propensity for life, but there is no reason to think any of them have achieved this.”

Yet even if life does exist elsewhere, Coyne said, it would involve no scandal to the faith. The universe itself, he said, is the real miracle.

Bottom line, according to the theologians: If the truth is indeed out there, we’re ready.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

Sci-fi ponders alien challenge to faith

Science fiction has been exploring the possibility of life in space for years. It has also asked a lot of questions about how religion fits into the mix when earthlings discover other planets. Here is a short list of a few books and stories about (mostly Christian) Earth folks who go into space and encounter God, other creatures and alien religions. Often their own faith is challenged by what they find.

“The Star” (short story) in The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, by Arthur C. Clarke (Tor Books)

A Jesuit astrophysicist serves on a spaceship. His faith in a good and merciful God falters when the ship’s crew discovers a millennia-old marker left by a vital alien people who perished with the destruction of their planet in a supernova.

“Field of Vision” (short story) in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, by Ursula K. LeGuin (Orion Publishing Group)

Astronauts return from a trip into space afflicted with inexplicable problems: One is insane, one is blind, one is deaf. As a psychologist works with the one who is blind, the reader slowly discovers that the space explorers are reacting to an encounter with something human senses are too limited to perceive.

Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card (Tor Books)

Portuguese colonists have brought their Catholicism to another planet and its gentle inhabitants. Some of the creatures show a mild interest in the Christian faith, but then the humans discover that there is an older belief system on the planet, which practices an alien ritual that looks, to the humans, like brutal murder. (The second book in the popular Ender’s Game series.)

The Sparrow and Children of God, by Mary Doria Russell (Ballantine Books)

The Sparrow begins in the year 2060. A Jesuit priest is being sheltered in the Vatican, the lone survivor of a mission to a planet on which two intelligent species have been discovered. As the priest is interviewed on Earth about his experiences, readers learn how the earthlings’ introduction of agriculture to the Runa (one of the species) led to a situation that wiped out most of the humans and nearly destroyed Fr. Emilio.

Russell, an anthropologist, continues in Children of God to explore the cultural change that was unleashed. Fr. Emilio, back on Earth, has lost his faith in a compassionate God: How could God have led him into such terrible suffering? When he is forced into a mission to return to the planet, he discovers that maybe God had a plan all along.

C.S. Lewis also wrote a “Space Trilogy”: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra and That Hideous Strength (Scribner). It is more of an allegory than what we today call science fiction, so it is not in the list above. But Lewis has a quote in the end of his first book that we might like to remember as our technology-oriented society thinks of exploring the cosmos: “If we could even effect in 1 percent of our readers a changeover from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a beginning.”

-- NCR staff

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004

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