Since time immemorial, man has gazed at the night sky looking at the vast Creation of God before him that illuminates the Cosmos and wondered what is beyond the boundary that transcends all men and women on Earth. Today, modern science has led a fierce search across our universe looking for any evidence of extraterrestrial life. None thus far has been found, but the ultimate alien question is still up in the air. While the Church has never issued a formal statement, here’s what Pope Francis and Vatican astronomers have said on the matter.
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” – John 10:16
It might surprise you that for such a transcendent question, early Christians and the Church Fathers never speculated about the possibility of the existence of extraterrestrial life. Early Christians held a geocentric worldview that meant anything extra terram, apart from earth and water, must have lived in the air and thus would have been a spirit of some form – not an alien life. The only tangentially related belief held by some early Christians on is that the seven planets (the sun, moon, and five visible planets) were of rational minds because their circular motion was too consequential not to be of rational origin.
Fast forward a thousand years, and Proposition 27 issued by Bishop Etienne Tempier of Paris in 1277 sparked speculation about other worlds – and life unlike our own. Proposition 27 condemned the Aristotelian position that “the first cause cannot make more than one world” as heretical. While the condemnation was meant to simply affirm God’s omnipotence, it opened the door for intense theological discussions of the implication of otherworldly life. Nicholas of Cusa writes in 1440:
“Life, as it exists here on earth in the form of men, animals, and plants, is to be found, let us suppose, in a higher form in the solar and stellar region.”
Almost another millennium later, the question and its answer are still being debated today. When asked for his take, Pope Francis commented on the possibility of rational beings elsewhere in the universe:
“Honestly I wouldn’t know how to answer. Until America was discovered we thought it didn’t exist, and instead it existed. But in every case, I think that we should stick to what the scientists tell us, still aware that the Creator is infinitely greater than our knowledge.”
However, Pope Francis is sure of one thing about aliens. If they came to Earth and asked to be baptized, he would no qualms about doing so.
“If tomorrow an expedition of Martians came to us here and one said ‘I want to be baptised!’, what would happen? Martians, right? Green, with long noses and big ears, like in children’s drawings. When the Lord shows us the way, who are we to say, ‘No, Lord, it is not prudent! No, let’s do it this way.’ Who are we to close doors?”
Guy Consolmagno, one of the Vatican’s chief astronomers, would do the same, but “only if they asked,” because “any entity – no matter how many tentacles it has – has a soul.” However, Consolmagno also said while he would be “delighted,” the reality is that the odds of actually finding extraterrestrial life, let alone such a being requesting baptism, are slim to none.
“The odds of us finding it, of it being intelligent and us being able to communicate with it, when you add them up it’s probably not a practical question.”
Similarly, Jesuit Father Jose Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory believes that if we did find alien life we should consider them an “extraterrestrial brother” in God’s Creation. Such a possibility is not in conflict with the Faith according to him “because we cannot place limits on the creative freedom of God.”
Father Funes also believes if alien life were found, they may not need God’s redemption.
“We who belong to the human race could really be that lost sheep, the sinners who need a pastor. God became man in Jesus in order to save us. So if there are also other intelligent beings, it’s not a given that they need redemption. They might have remained in full friendship with their creator.”