A recent Department of Defense report about a credible UFO sighting in 2004 renews discussion about how science and faith have addressed the possibility of intelligent life on other planets.
Ancient relief with Christian crosses and an alien-like person on wall of the fourth-century Samtavro Orthodox Church in Mtskheta, Georgia. (photo: Radiokafka/Shutterstock)
On Dec. 16, 2017, reports were released by the U.S. Department of Defense of a possible UFO-sighting 13 years earlier. Apparently, in mid-November 2004, two American fighter pilots spotted and filmed an unidentified flying object off the coast of San Diego. The object they saw was about 40 feet long and looked like a giant Tic-Tac. It appeared suddenly at 80,000 feet, then descended toward the ocean and hovered at 20,000 feet, before dropping out of radar range.
There is no explanation for what these two fighter pilots saw and filmed. But the Church has plenty to say, theologically, about the possibility of life in outer space.
“There is no official teaching,” said Father Terry Ehrman, assistant director for the Center for Theology, Science and Human Flourishing at the University of Notre Dame. “But there has been speculation within the Church since the Middle Ages. In the 15th century, people began to ask if there was a plurality of worlds.”
Since 1582, the Vatican has had — with some continuity — an astronomical observatory. With regards to the subject of alien life, it held conferences on this matter in 2009, 2011 and 2014.
Pope Francis said, during a morning Mass in May 2014, “If an expedition of Martians arrives and some of them come to us and if one of them says: ‘Me, I want to be baptized!’ what would happen?”
He said that even if these hypothetical beings were “green men, with a long nose and big ears, like children draw … who are we to close doors?”
The theological questions that emerge on the subject of possible alien life are many: If there is life on other planets, is it intelligent life? If men and women were created in the image and likeness of God, what is the image of God? Would intelligent life on other planets also be in the image of God?
“But the real question is [about] redemption: What do we do with sin? Will extraterrestrials sin? Or would they always be good? We can’t presume that, just because we sinned, all intelligent life would. Have aliens fallen? Is sinfulness intrinsic to intelligent life? Is Original Sin just for terrestrials or also for aliens?” said Father Ehrman.
Finally, theologians wonder if Jesus’ incarnation was just for humans or for life throughout the universe — including aliens. Could there have been multiple Incarnations?
“Scripture is written as though we are the only species,” noted Father Ehrman. “These are questions for which we don’t have answers. But it is good to think about: What is my relationship to God? What does this have to do with me?”
The question of life on other planets brings up some harsh scientific facts: The chance of life existing on another planet is extremely remote.
According to Angelo Stagnaro, a Catholic journalist with graduate degrees in biological anthropology, the existence of life on another planet is virtually impossible.
“Now, don’t get me wrong. The Church would be happy to have alien life. And we can never limit God’s power. I would be the first booster for alien life. I love Star Trek, but when you crunch the numbers, it’s impossible.”
Scientists know that in order for life to appear on Earth, many conditions needed to exist in a precise and highly timed order. If any one of these factors did not take place, life could not have occurred.
“In order for life to take place, a planet has to be in what is called a ‘goldilocks zone,’” said Father Robert Spitzer, a Jesuit who was the president of Gonzaga University and who founded the Magis Center. “It can’t be too close to the sun or it will burn, or too far because it would be too cold. It has to be a rocky planet and not a gas planet. It must have a magnetic core, like the Earth, so that it can create a magnetosphere which protects the planet from the UV rays of the sun.”
Stagnaro has written about what he calls the “Shem Equation,” regarding 76 factors that need to occur for life to take place on a planet. The chances of these events happening are, according to Stagnaro, “astronomically impossible and intellectually untenable.”
The discovery of thousands of exoplanets in the last couple of years has, of course, reignited the question of life in outer space.
“Some say that there could be 1 trillion exoplanets. I favor the smaller number of 100 billion exoplanets. Any of these planets could have bacterial life. But we still can’t explain how the transition is made from nonlife to life on any planet, from amino acid to cell life,” said Father Spitzer.
Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago, with bacterial life appearing 3.8 to 3.9 billion years ago.
“But how life started on Earth, nobody knows,” said Father Spitzer.
Aliens With Souls
Catholic theologians are not just interested in the question of intelligent life appearing on other planets, but if those intelligent beings have a soul. Some, like Father Spitzer, contend that higher intelligence is actually the sign of being ensouled.
“If there is any other intelligent life in the universe that can do the things we do, they would have to have a transphysical soul,” he said.
Father Spitzer contends that, about 70,000 years ago, human beings suddenly made huge advancements in civilization: They began burying their dead, doing math and painting in caves.
“Before that, from 300,000 to 75,000 years ago, our ancestors were basically eating bananas and cracking rocks. But, suddenly, they became civilized. My thought is that: 70,000 years ago, our ancestors got a soul. The real Adam and Eve became ensouled,” said Father Spitzer.
He explains that renowned thinkers, like Noble Prize-winning scientist Sir John Eccles, Rhodes scholar and cognitive scientist David Chalmers, and logician Kurt Godel all believed that the conceptual ideas that human beings have cannot be explained by physical processes alone and that consciousness cannot be reduced to the brain alone.
“We have a transphysical soul. It causes us to be able to do math without algorithms,” said Father Spitzer. “We have math intuitions that are free of rules. We have conceptual ideas that are not experienced in the outer world.”
If aliens did exist and were able to come here, according to Father Spitzer, that kind of higher intelligence could only take place because these aliens were themselves ensouled.
“They would know about religion. They would have a sense of infinity,” he said. “We would have to find them, catechize them and tell them about Jesus and baptize them.”