Vatican Astronomer Talks About Extraterrestrial Life

Vatican Astronomer Talks About Extraterrestrial Life

Father Jose Funes, a Jesuit priest and current Director of the Vatican Observatory, is in the news for sharing his thoughts on extraterrestrial life. Again.

Fr. Jose Funes: ‘Encounter with extraterrestrials could happen in near future’

L’Osservatore Romano quoted Fr. Funes as saying, “Our galaxy contains more than a hundred billion stars. Considering the number of exoplanets discovered, it seems that the vast majority of stars in our galaxy, at least potentially, can have planets where life could develop.”

 (Quote taken via Irish Central.)

He continued: “The discovery of the new planet Kepler 452b revives the idea that contact and, why not, the encounter with extraterrestrial intelligent beings of an alien civilization could happen in the near future.”

“It is probable there was life and perhaps a form of intelligent life … I don’t think we’ll ever meet a Mr. Spock. Personally I am very skeptical that this cosmic event actually happens.”

But what about the fact that ETs aren’t mentioned in the Bible? (At least, not explicitly?)

“The Bible is not a scientific book,” Fr. Funes answered. “If we look for scientific responses to our questions in the Bible, we are making a mistake.”

The role of Scripture, he adds, is to “answer great questions, like ‘what is our role in the Universe?'”

This isn’t the first time Fr. Funes talked ETs. He’s discussed the subject with the press before, including saying in 2010 that he would baptize an extraterrestrial should it request one.

Something that many of the more evangelical-type Christians found scandalous is that Fr. Funes believes that, if there is intelligent life out there, these extraterrestrials could be free of original sin.

Here’s a quote from a 2008 article in National Catholic Register:

When asked how aliens could be redeemed, Father Funes referred to the Gospel parable of the lost sheep. Aliens, he speculated, could already be redeemed because they could have remained in full friendship with God, while the human race “could be precisely the lost sheep, the sinners that need the shepherd.”


His predecessor, Father George Coyne, pointed out in a 1994 interview that science and religion shouldn’t be confused. “A lot of people make that mistake,” he told Jack Hitt for a New York Times feature. He added that even Stephen Hawking, whom Fr. Coyne considered a friend, made that such an error when, in his Brief History of Time, he concluded that an understanding of the universe will acquaint us all with “the mind of God.”

Fr. George V. Coyne, S.J.

Incidentally, Fr. Coyne was asked about extraterrestrials in that NY Times interview, and the discussion got interesting. Here’s that moment from the 1994 article:

I shift back to the Bible because there is one undeniable assumption in Scripture. Even the most progressive, woman-ordaining, Paul-was-gay, Jesus-was-illegitimate, Mary-was-a-single-mother, “Kumbaya”-singing Christian must admit that the Bible states that humanity is a unique creation.

“I was never taught to believe that,” Coyne says, swatting away my question like a bug. He knows where I’m heading, and we both have a laugh. At the mere hint of a discussion leading to the issue of extraterrestrials, Coyne beats a hasty retreat to the sanctuary of science. He has thought about the issue before.

He puts his hands, palms down, on the arms of his chair like a seated cardinal: “The sun is one of a hundred billion stars in our galaxy of which there are a hundred billion galaxies. So you start thinking: Thirty percent of stars are like the sun. Ten percent of these have exactly the right surface temperature as the sun. One half percent of those have planets about them. One half of those have a distribution about them of terrestrial and Jovian planets. One half percent of those can have a planet like earth — and I can keep going, narrowing and narrowing, and yet you still have billions of planets.”

“How can you describe the universe,” I ask, “as a vast empty infinitude, largely uninhabited, and still believe in—-.”

“The centrality of man in the universe?” Coyne says, perfectly completing my sentence. “There’s no doubt about it. To our own knowledge of ourselves, we are unique in creation because of our self-reflexivity. I can know myself knowing. I am a having a conversation with you, and I can remember that conversation. To this, the Catholic Church comes along and says, the reason this is true is because you have an individual soul.”

When I shake my head, more in confusion than in disbelief, Coyne shows a honest frustration with his own Jesuitical reasoning.

“I don’t know what the ultimate answer is,” he says. “But I do know in my faith that I’m unique. God loves me as an individual, and I was created by God. But I also know that I evolved, that my ancestors came crawling out of the sea, and that they wound up hanging from trees eating bananas. I believe all that and I believe the two are compatible.”

Coyne’s most recent article in Nature examines the dust rings around newborn stars that eventually collide, collect into dirt clods and eventually compact into planets, possibly life-sustaining ones. He admits that if we discovered extraterrestrial life, it might prompt some new thinking as a Jesuit.

“The theological problem becomes interesting only after a series of hypotheticals are answered,” he says and puts his fingers together in a tent. Unlike his other answers, Coyne’s words are suddenly dense and compounded. This is an “angels on the head of a pin” answer, a Jesuitical answer.

“O.K., so I meet this ‘person.’ I would ask him: ‘Are you intelligent? Self-reflexive? In the traditional sense do you have what we call a soul?’ Good. ‘Nice to meet you.’ ” He says he would then find out if their civilization sinned, then if it was redeemed, then if the redeemer was a man named Jesus, and then: “If they say, ‘Oh yes, now you have a theological problem. How could Jesus Christ be our redeemer on earth and of another planet and still be the one Son of God. Could he have had several incarnations? That’s a pretty ticklish theological problem and I don’t know the answer.”

Later, when I ask Corbally if he would want to baptize aliens, the painful conflict of the interventionist duties of the Jesuit versus the detached objectivity of the scientist is visible.

Corbally knots his legs into rope and wraps both his arms behind his head. His soft voice almost disappears. I must lean forward to hear him murmur that, yes, he would try to baptize them. But Corbally adds dolefully, “I would first want to examine the theological data of their beliefs.”

An important context to bear in mind is that both Fr. Funes and Fr. Corbally formed their thoughts before the recent Kepler finds confirmed the existence of many, many exoplanets likely to be home to life — and possibly even intelligent life. Fr. Corbally’s comments, in particular, were made at a time when serious public discussion among respected scientists regarding intelligent life “out there” was a rare thing.

Another thing that makes their remarks interesting is that astronomers aren’t prone to speculation and theorizing. Or at least, that’s the way it often seems. Astronomers tend to be a very different breed from, say, theoretical physicists. This is perhaps why SETI’s Seth Shostak can come across as frustratingly stubborn and unimaginative in any discussion about ETs, while folks like Michio Kaku and Stephen Hawking seem open to all manner of possibility when it comes to extraterrestrials.
 Leave it to the Jesuits to be the astronomers capable of making a leap of faith. 
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