This artist’s concept depicts select planetary discoveries made by NASA’s Kepler space telescope. CNS photo courtesy NASA

Belief in aliens not so far out for some Catholics

By  Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service
  • September 22, 2019

VATICAN CITY -- More than two million people RSVP’d to a recent social media invitation to “storm” Area 51 in Nevada, in the hope of discovering whether alien life or spacecraft may be secretly stored at this U.S. Air Force base.

Though the proposed raid was a spoof, it has morphed into a real, more peaceful encounter. Now dubbed “Alienstock,” the Sept. 20-22 festival is aiming to be a place “where believers gather” to discuss and celebrate confidence in the existence of alien life and the wonders of the unknown, according to its website, alienstockfestival.com.

But another brand of believers — a “Men in Black” of a spiritual kind — are the Pope’s own Jesuit astronomers. They have long been active in discussions about extraterrestrial life, the ethics of space exploration and the religious significance of a universe that could be teeming with life.

The huge amount of interest the general public has shown in life existing elsewhere in the universe is part of the age-old question, “Are we alone?” said Jesuit Fr. Jose Funes, former director of the Vatican Observatory and an expert in galaxies and extragalactic astronomy.

The fascination with seeking extraterrestrial life or intelligence “reflects very deep human issues that are important for us” and makes people think about “who we are,” he told Catholic News Service.

“We have to become alien somehow” and step outside oneself “in order to understand better who human beings are,” said the priest, who holds the chair in science, religion and education at the Catholic University of Cordoba, Argentina. 

Funes’ multidisciplinary expertise in astronomy, philosophy and theology has now earned him a unique place in ET research — serving on the advisory council of METI International.

METI, or Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence, takes the next step in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI.

The SETI project, which started in 1959, represents a major co-ordinated effort in scanning the sky for unusual radio and laser signals from sources that may indicate signs of alien technology. METI looks at what and how to communicate in a vast universe.

More than 80 experts from a huge array of fields — including ethics, linguistics and theology — make up METI’s advisory council, and it was last year that the group’s president and founder, Douglas Vakoch, asked Funes to join.

Even though religion does not offer the tools required for scientific proof that extraterrestrial life exists, Vakoch said, “if we find life out there some day, many people will look to their religious leaders to help understand what it means to all of us down here on planet Earth.”

Catholic theologians and priests “have been among the most engaged in such discussions” about “whether extraterrestrials are likely to exist, and if they do, what they’re like,” Vakoch said.

If one assumes the universe is intelligence-friendly, then another question should be whether it is a spiritual-friendly universe, too.

“We ask the question if spirituality or spiritual beings are part of our evolutionary process or is it something that just happened by chance?” he said.

Vakoch said one of the biggest culprits in generating fear or negative reactions to potential alien life is not religion but science fiction and “Hollywood portrayals of marauding aliens coming to Earth to annihilate us.”

There are some “hopeful depictions of first contact,” he added, especially when they are “modern-day retellings of religious myths. Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial told of a visitor who came to Earth, transforming lives and overcoming death through love. The same for Starman, starring Jeff Bridges in the title role that was a thinly veiled reference to Christ.”

Vakoch said: “Some worry that learning about the existence of extraterrestrials will make humanity less unique. I suspect just the opposite will happen.”

Discovering intelligence on a distant exoplanet will show “there will never be a duplicate of Homo sapiens,” he said. “There may be beings out there who are more wise or powerful than we are, but they will never be more human.”

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