Out in the cosmos

 

THE CATHOLIC Church may have theological problems acknowledging some “miracles”, at Knock or elsewhere, but not, it seems, the possibility of little green men from Mars. Back in 1600 the Inquisition tied Giordano Bruno to the stake and burned him for heresy. The crime of this Renaissance philosopher, writer and free-thinker? The idea of a “plurality of worlds” and the possibility that life exists elsewhere in the universe. But the church has come some way since then, to the point that this week scientists met in Rome at the invitation of the director of the Vatican Observatory to discuss this very possibility.

The conference on astrobiology, a science that seeks to find life elsewhere in the cosmos and to understand how it began here, was organised by José Gabriel Funes, a Jesuit astronomer, who last year happily admitted the possibility of extra-terrestrial intelligent life in an interview with Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, headlined “The Alien is my Brother”. Aliens, he insisted, are no threat to faith: “Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures over the earth, so there could be other beings, even intelligent , created by God.... We cannot establish limits to God’s creative freedom”.

“To say it with St Francis,” Funes argued, “if we can consider some earthly creatures as ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’, why could we not speak of a ‘brother alien’?” He even suggested that alien beings might be free from original sin. “In that way, assuming that there would be other intelligent beings, we could not say that they need redemption. They could have remained in full friendship with the Creator.”

Just as Copernicus showed us that Earth – or, more subversively, man – is not the centre of the universe, the logic of astrobiology, that we are not alone or necessarily the most intelligent beings in the universe, might seem to be similarly unsettling to conventional belief. Catholicism, the “universal” church, and mainstream Protestantism have in recent years embraced the possibilities that science has thrown up, from Darwin to Galileo, by seeing the Bible as metaphor.

But there is still a challenge here for the many who believe in the literal truth of Genesis or in the Bible’s insistence on man’s unique centrality to God’s purpose. “They believe that God became incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ in order to save humankind,” Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist and a speaker at the Vatican event, told the Washington Post: “not dolphins or chimpanzees or little green men on other planets.”