A universe flourishing with intelligent life?

By Brandon A. Evans

Last in a series

Few things could pave new theological avenues as could the discovery of intelligent life outside this planet.

While many ponder the mysteries of God’s creation on Earth, seeking to evenly reconcile the accounts of evolution with those of Catholic theology, there are occasional voices and random theologians that speculate just what we would think if intelligent life was found elsewhere in the universe.

If there is intelligent life scattered about the universe, have such people been redeemed by Christ? Or do they even need to be?

The idea of the creation of other worlds is not a new question. It was addressed in 1277 by Bishop Etienne Tempier of Paris, who condemned the notion that God could not create other worlds.

In the past few years, such worlds have been found outside of our solar system. They are called “exoplanets.”

Father George Coyne, the director of the Vatican Astronomic Observatory, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that life on other planets “is an exciting prospect, which must be treated with caution.

“For the time being, there is no scientific evidence of life,” he said. “However, we are gathering observations that point to this possibility. The universe is so large that it would be folly to say that we are the exception. The debate is ongoing and complex.”

There are many factors that go into whether a planet is suitable enough to host primordial life forms, and many more that dictate whether or not intelligent life could ever arise. Most of those factors—particularly those that regard evolution—are still unknown and hotly debated in the scientific world.

One recent discovery was that the surface of Mars was indeed covered, at one time, with water—a primary ingredient of life.

It is also within the last two years, as they neared the 100th exoplanet discovery, that astronomers found a system vaguely similar to ours—with a Jupiter sized planet in distant orbit. Such an orbit would protect inner planets from comets and asteroids. Still, this is only a first step.

No answers may come to any of these scientific—or theological—questions for a long time. According to Father Eman McMullin, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, Catholics should not expect to hear from the Vatican as to how we should think about questions like this. Nor should anyone expect scientists to announce the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life anytime soon.

Still, it doesn’t mean that individuals cannot hypothesize about what could be waiting for us in the universe, and how those beings could play into salvation history.

“The first possibility is that there are other kinds of life in the universe than the life we have, which is life dependant on a body,” said Dominican Father Benedict Ashley, a professor at St. Louis University and a visiting scholar at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, D.C.

He was speaking of angels. Father Ashley said that St. Thomas Aquinas speculated that there were many more angels in the universe than human beings.

The intelligence of such angels would be very high, and Father Ashley went so far as to say that “human beings seem to have the lowest possible kind of intelligence” and that most other kinds of life would not be possessing of bodies.

Human-type life, in his eyes, must be a small part of creation in the universe.

And on other worlds, that type of life may or may not have been given grace.

“Thomas Aquinas said that God did not have to give Adam and Eve grace,” he said. Thus, it is possible that there are humans in the universe living in a purely natural state, one in which they merely live a good life and after death go to a place similar to “Limbo.”

Limbo is an old, mostly unused term that some theologians once used to describe what happened to, for instance, miscarried babies that were never baptized but were pure nonetheless. It is a place of great happiness—a God-given heaven—except without the beatific vision of God. Of course, those there wouldn’t know what they were missing.

“Another possibility is that they have been given grace [but fell into Original Sin],” Father Ashley said. “If [God] created them in grace, then they would have to be saved through Jesus Christ. Aquinas holds that the Incarnation could have taken place in more than one human nature.”

This is, of course, where the waters get muddied and it gets very hard for humans to understand how God could have accomplished such a feat.

“If I were to meet an intelligent being from other worlds,” said Father Coyne, “who revealed to me a spiritual life and told me that his people have also been saved by God through sending his only Son, he would ask me how it is possible that his only ‘Son’ was present in different places. Thoughts of this kind are a great challenge.”

Or, as Father Ashley pondered, perhaps there are civilizations that are waiting to hear the Good News from us.

“They could be saved without knowing the Gospel but simply on the basis of knowing what truth they know,” he said. Basically, they could get to heaven by following their conscience and living a good life. This is a similar theology to that which is applied to those people in the world who have not yet been reached by missionaries.

There is still another possibility, one put forth by C.S. Lewis in the second book of his Space Trilogy, Perelandra. He describes a world in which the original couple was given grace and tempted by the devil, but never fell into Original Sin.

The question in this scenario is whether or not the Incarnation would happen on such a world. They would need no redemption, but would Christ still want to come to them in an intimate way? Or is Original Sin necessary for the Incarnation?

As is sung in the Exultet during the Easter Vigil: “O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, which gained for us so great a Redeemer!”

This is another question that will likely remain unanswered in our lifetimes.

Father Ashley said that nothing in the Bible says that there cannot be life on other worlds, but that it also doesn’t give us much of an idea of how to think about the perplexing questions that come out of such thinking.

Though it is a complicated subject, it is one that is driven forward by the recent discoveries of planets outside of our solar system. And as long as science pushes man forward, it will press these theological questions.

“Science does not destroy the believer’s faith, but stimulates it,” Father Coyne said.

Still, when it comes to the mystery of creation, it stays, in the end, a mystery.

Many of the questions regarding human life, especially in regard to how God created the world and brought life into it, and whether this has happened elsewhere, will remain unanswered in this life.

John Haught, a professor of theology at Georgetown University, believes that a great strain is put on religion and science when people look too closely and demand to know exactly where, when and how God interacted with creation.

The only real answer is that there is no answer now. Science moves on, continuing to investigate the world and explain it in all its goodness, which glorifies God, the Father, the Creator.

As Stephen Jay Gould, the late evolutionary theorist from Harvard University, once wrote, there should be no conflict between science and religion because they talk about two different things.

The truths of science cannot contradict the truths of faith, and apparent contradictions need to be reconciled.

“There can never, indeed, be any real discrepancy between the theologian and the physicist,” wrote Pope Leo XIII in his 1893 encyclical Providentissimus Deus, “as long as each confines himself within his own lines, and both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, ‘not to make rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.’ ”

He went on to say that “if dissension should arise between them, here is the rule also laid down by St. Augustine, for the theologian: ‘Whatever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with our Scriptures; and whatever they assert in their treatises which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is to Catholic faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be entirely false, or at all events we must, without the smallest hesitation, believe it to be so.’ ”

Likewise, the First Vatican Council declared the importance both of reason and faith, when used together.

“Not only can faith and reason never be at odds with one another but they mutually support each other, for on the one hand right reason established the foundations of the faith and, illuminated by its light, develops the science of divine things; on the other hand, faith delivers reason from errors and protects it and furnishes it with knowledge of many kinds,” the council fathers wrote in the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith.”

In those areas where science and religion meet, they work together to answer the questions of life. Science may tell us what the first men looked like, where they were and when they emerged, but it is up to religion to tell us that the first man was given a soul and the chance to choose God or himself.

At once, the pope recognizes the scientific strength of evolution and scientists recognize their lack of explanation for the human consciousness.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, summed up the Catholic belief on creation in a homily.

“We must have the audacity to say that the great projects of the living creation are not products of chance and error,” he said. “Nor are they the products of a selective process to which divine predicates can be attributed in illogical, unscientific and even mythic fashion.

“The great projects of the living creation point to a creating Reason and show us a creating Intelligence, and they do so more luminously and radiantly today than ever before. Thus we can say today with a new certitude and joyousness that the human being is indeed a divine project which only the creating Intelligence was strong and great and audacious enough to conceive of.

“The human being is not a mistake but something willed; he is the fruit of love. He can disclose in himself, in the bold project that he is, the language of the creating Intelligence that speaks to him and that moves him to say: ‘Yes, Father you have willed me.’ ” †

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