Famed physicist and professor Steven Hawking has on multiple occasions expressed his support for theories postulating the existence of extraterrestrial life forms.
As a Jesuit university, we take two religion classes as part of our liberal arts curriculum. However, in many classes we neglect to reconcile these ideas that Hawking has brought up. Is it possible for Catholicism and other religious ideas to accept or acknowledge the possibility of life beyond our planet?
The likelihood that humankind will make contact with an alien species identical to Wookiees, Vulcans or Klingons is sadly quite low, barring some extraterrestrial conspiracy to implant memories within a human consciousness. Yet, by the same token, it is mathematically just as unlikely that Earth will be bulldozed by Vogons anytime soon (so don’t panic).
Despite the superficial fictitious nature of it all, the question of life beyond Earth has populated formal scientific discourse for centuries. Extraterrestrial life, whatever it may be, is viewed as a reasonable research subject by most in the scientific community. NASA even maintains an astrobiology institute dedicated to the study of life and its origins at the planetary level.
Unsurprisingly, such continued scientific and popular interest has provoked the ire of Catholics, lay theologians and clerics alike.
Viewing science and religion as a dichotomy is a fairly popular solution, though it neglects to consider the work of philosopher-theologians who looked to bridge reason and faith throughout the ages.
It is unlikely that Aquinas gave thought to aliens when writing his Summa Theologicae, but his methods stand.
As of yet, there has been no conclusive evidence pointing to the existence of anything we might consider life off our planet, but we remain enamored with tales of galaxies far, far away. The question itself is reasonable: if humans are not alone, how can we reconcile the plurality of life in the universe with our religious traditions?
One place to begin could be the definition of “Man” itself, perhaps taking a more flexible view of Genesis to allow for the well-proven theory of evolution, and thereby the admission of other species in the Homo genus into the “human” category. Perhaps any extraterrestrial humanoids out there could also be included, making humanity not a single-planet happenstance, but a group theoretically spanning millennia and the universe. This is only one way in which scripture can be viewed as a way to bridge the gap between expanding scientific theory and religious texts.
Of course, the number of problems this simple extension of thought calls forth is staggering. To ponder aliens with a Catholic mindset is to question the very foundations of the faith, from original sin to humankind’s salvation through Jesus’ Passion to the Final Judgment. Any mental images of far-flung Jesuits attempting to evangelize among the Ewoks aside, the earthly implications of this contemplation are strongly tied to the interpretation of Scripture.
However, maybe aliens to the 21st century Catholic Church will be what heliocentrism was to its 16th century predecessor, eventually inviting new understandings of the sacred texts. At first, there will be a lot of discord and denial, albeit hopefully without the mass killings and destruction of literature. But eventually religion may come around to the growing popularity of extraterrestrial life, and include it in their teachings to bring in a younger and more open-minded crowd.