Had he lived to what would have been his 75th birthday on Monday, Carl Sagan would’ve seen a surprising new collaborator in pondering whether there’s life out there in the cosmos: the Vatican. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences held a conference of scientists and theologians this week that probed the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and the peculiar religious questions that life on other worlds would raise.
Father Jose Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory, became the Catholic Church’s chief evangelist this week spreading the notion that alien life is compatible with Christianity. “This is not in contradiction with our faith, because we cannot establish limits to God’s creative freedom. To say it with St Francis, if we can consider some earthly creatures as ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’, why could we not speak of a ‘brother alien’? He would also belong to the creation” [The Guardian].
The meeting marks another step in the Vatican’s attempt to overcome its historical reputation as unfriendly to science and scientists. The church held a similar scientific conference on evolution earlier this year, and set up a Vatican Museum exhibit to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s observations–and to make up for the church’s 17th century treatment of him. In 1992, Pope John Paul II declared the ruling against the astronomer was an error resulting from “tragic mutual incomprehension” [AP].
But while many Christians have managed to square evolution and astronomy with non-literal interpretations of the Bible, some people think the reconciliation won’t be so easy—like cosmologist Paul Davies, who spoke at the conference. “The real threat would come from the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, because if there are beings elsewhere in the universe, then Christians, they’re in this horrible bind. They believe that God became incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ in order to save humankind, not dolphins or chimpanzees or little green men on other planets,” [Washington Post] he says.
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