The Catholic Faith and the Existence of Intelligent Extra-terrestrial Life (1/2)

The vastness and beauty of the heavens evoke feelings of awe and wonder, and have led people throughout the ages to ask: Are we alone in the universe? This question has enjoyed increased popularity in recent times. Aside from the many writers of fiction who earn their living by populating the skies, a fair number of contemporary scientists have been engaging in speculations about extra-terrestrial life, some even searching for it. The positions advocated by scientists in turn have stimulated the thought of theologians and philosophers of science. A wide variety of positions has been adopted, one of which I intend to examine here. It has to do with a question which arises if one concedes that intelligent ET life may exist, namely, if intelligent ET life exists, does that mean that Christianity which proclaims that the Son of God became a human being to save us from our sins is merely an anthropocentric story? A common response to this question is that the discovery of ET life poses no threat to Christianity–it would simply be the case that the universe turned out to be bigger than the Scriptures led us to believe. What is often not made clear is exactly why someone might think that the existence of ETs would relegate Christianity to the realm of mythology. Correspondingly, the grounds for the claim that there is no incompatibility between the beliefs are often more hinted at than explicated.

The purpose of this paper is to clarify what if any incompatibility there is between Catholic Christian beliefs and the existence of ETs. I am not going to examine the scientific investigations which bear upon the likelihood of ET life, partly because many others are more knowledgeable than myself in this area, and partly because these discussions have little direct bearing on my main purpose. If there are grounds for maintaining that there is or is not a conflict between Christian belief and the existence of extra-terrestrial life, these grounds are not going to disappear because of what science says one way or the other about the likelihood of extra-terrestrial life.

The existence of extra-terrestrial life could conflict with the Catholic faith in three ways. First, it could directly conflict with official Church teaching. Second, it could conflict with Scriptural passages. Sometimes the latter conflict coincides with the former, but this is not always the case since Catholicism is not a “religion of the book.” and not all passages of Scripture have an official interpretation. Finally, belief in ET life could also conflict with traditional beliefs which the faithful are not bound to adhere to (beliefs such as limbo). The latter two forms of conflict are less acute; such Scriptural passages are subject to reinterpretation, and such traditional beliefs sometimes go out of vogue. I will limit myself here to considering official Church teachings, and the most relevant and most problematic of the passages of Scripture which do not have an official interpretation.

The Good News is that the Second Person of the Trinity became a human being in order to save human beings from sin, both original sin and personal sin. Christ realized our salvation by his death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead. Since Christ’s sacrifice does not save us without cooperation on our part, a substantial amount of Christian doctrine concerns what we must do in order to obtain eternal life. The supposed conflict with Christian belief and belief in ETs is not with the teachings about Christian behavior, but with those concerning the Incarnation and Redemption.

One kind of argument regarding the existence of ETs is based on the failure of Scripture to mention them. From this omission people have argued to opposite conclusions. Those who are convinced of the reliability of Scripture conclude that ETs do not exist. Whereas those who lack this prior conviction, and who are inclined to admit the existence of ETs, conclude that Scripture is unreliable.

Both of these arguments base themselves either on a faulty supposition as to the purpose of Scripture or as to its completeness, or on an unjustified assumption about the relation of ETs to humans, and sometimes on more than one of these. The purpose of Scripture is not to instruct us about the constitution of the cosmos, but to teach us things that we need to know to save our souls. Thus, when Scripture does not speak of something, the probable conclusion to be drawn is that knowledge of that thing does not pertain to our salvation. I say “probable conclusion” because not every article of the faith is found in Scripture, the Immaculate Conception being a case in point. What is found in Scripture is written for our salvation; what is not found in Scripture may or may not pertain to our salvation. Thus those who reason that Scripture says nothing about the existence of ETs and therefore they do not exist, first assume that knowledge of ET existence pertains to our salvation, and second that everything that pertains to our salvation is necessarily in Scripture. Those who reason that Scripture is unreliable because it does not speak of ETs, either mistakenly think that the purpose of Scripture is to give a course in cosmology, or while acknowledging its purpose regards our salvation, assume, as their opponents do, that knowledge of ET existence pertains to our salvation, and that everything pertaining thereto is spoken about in Scripture.

A probable case, however, can be made that if ETs exist, the reason why Scripture omits any reference to them is because such knowledge is unimportant for our salvation. A reference to Catholic belief concerning another type of intelligent being is helpful here. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Angels are a truth of the faith.” Angels played and still play a role in regard to our salvation, and are repeatedly mentioned in Scripture: our first mother sinned at the instigation of a fallen angel; the new Eve at the announcement of an angel became the Mother of God; Christ speaks about children having angels, etc. If ETs had a similar impact on our salvation it is reasonable to expect to hear about them in Scripture just as we hear about angels, with oral tradition remaining an alternate means of our knowing about them. Factually no extra-terrestrial has had any known effect on any human individual whatsoever. Moreover, salvation has already been effected through Christ’s death and resurrection. Whence: “’The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.'”

The discovery of ETs would not be reason to revise God’s saving plan for humanity, nor would ETs bring us some new revelation. Any future interactions we might have with them would not be radically different than those with our fellow humans, and thus how we should treat them and how we should expect them to treat us is already known to us through the Ten Commandments and the other moral teachings of the New Testament. ETs as rational material beings would have the same rights as we do to life, property, good name, etc.  And they would have a similar potential to impact on our lives as others humans do, by exhorting us to do good, by giving good example, etc. or by the opposite, leading us astray, giving us bad example, granted they may perhaps be more helpful or pernicious than our fellow humans if they are more intelligent than they.

It is noteworthy that Augustine and Aquinas seriously entertained the possibility that there exist intelligent beings in the universe in addition to humans and angels, namely, animated celestial bodies. These theologians did not immediately reject this possibility because Scripture makes no mention of such beings.  This is reasonably ascribed not only to their conviction that Scripture did not teach everything there could be known about the cosmos, but also to their confidence that there could be no conflict between faith and reason. God could certainly create other intelligent beings if he wanted to, and if they were discovered their existence was not going to conflict with God’s teaching about himself which comes to us through the Christian Faith. But let us return to making plain what the purported points of conflict are.

Some thinkers do not see a problem in Scripture’s lack of mention of ETs, but instead discern a conflict between the teachings of the faith and certain consequences of ET existence. Among these are Abbé Joseph Émile Filachou who sees accepting ET life as incompatible with Christian belief on three counts: “the importance presupposed [in Scripture] of the role of man on earth, the supreme dignity attributed to the Divine founder of the Christian Church, and finally the grandeur attributed to the Church itself.”

The first point can be answered by saying that the existence of ETs does not as such prejudice the role of humans on earth as having dominion over the earth. Even if ETs were superior to us in intelligence, we as rational creatures would not be their slaves any more than one human is the slave of another human who is significantly more intelligent; nor would ETs have any right to our property from the simple fact they are more intelligent. ET immigration would raise the same sorts of problems human immigration raises, e.g., perhaps we would be obligated to share the earth with them.

Filachou’s other two questions regarding the relation such beings would have to Christ and to his Church, however, are not so easily resolved. As to their relation to Christ a wide variety of scenarios has been proposed, and evaluated in the light of Christian teaching.

One possibility is that these beings never sinned, and thus are not in need of a redeemer. That such occur does not seem excluded by any Catholic teaching. Christ would be the head of these beings, as he is head of the angels, and knowledge about Christ would be of interest to them in the same way it is of interest to the angels.

Another possibility is that the ETs did not sin, are not in need of a redeemer, and yet the Word becomes incarnate as one of them for reasons other than redemption. Although human redemption is the chief reason given for the Incarnation of Christ as a human being, other reasons for his Incarnation are given as well. If God so chose he could certainly become incarnate as another human-type being for reasons other than redeeming that people. (I say “human-type” being because the ETs are supposed not to be pure spirits, but to have a body as well.) 12 However, a complication arises with the possibility that Christ become incarnate more than one time, namely, passages from Scripture indicate that there is one Lord, Jesus Christ:

And even if there were things called gods, either in the sky or on earth–where there certainly seem to be “gods” and “lords” in plenty–still for us there is one God, the Father, from whom all things come and for whom we exist; and there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things come and through whom we exist (1 Cor. 8:5-6).

His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as men are; and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross. But God raised him high and gave him the name which is above all other names, so that all beings in the heavens, on the earth and in the underworld, should bend at the name of Jesus and that every tongue should acclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:6-11).

(To Be Continued)

Source: Marie I. George, St. John’s University, New York Published in “The Catholic Faith, Scripture, and the Question of the Existence of Intelligent Extra-terrestrial Life”, in: Alice Ramos and Marie I. George (editors), Faith, Scholarship, and Culture in the 21 st Century (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), pp. 135-145.

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