November 11, 2009

The Marriage Of Faith And Reason: An Alien Concept

The Catholic Church has come a long way since locking up Galileo for questioning whether the universe revolves around the Earth. The Vatican is now calling upon experts to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrial alien life and what that would mean for the Church and its beliefs, reported the Associated Press.

Astronomer and director of the Vatican Observatory Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes said, "The questions of life's origins and of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are very suitable and deserve serious consideration."

On Tuesday, Funes announced the outcome of a five-day conference that brought together astronomers, physicists, biologists and other experts to discuss the burgeoning field of astrobiology, which studies the origin of life and whether the phenomenon exists anywhere else in the universe.

According to Funes, a Jesuit priest, the possibility of alien life has "many philosophical and theological implications." But he also said that the conference primarily centered on scientific perspective and what experts from diverse backgrounds could bring to the table.

Chris Impey, an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona, said it is fitting for the Vatican to make such a move.

"Both science and religion posit life as a special outcome of a vast and mostly inhospitable universe," he said in a news conference on Tuesday. "There is a rich middle ground for dialogue between the practitioners of astrobiology and those who seek to understand the meaning of our existence in a biological universe."

The conference was made up of thirty scientists, with varying religious backgrounds, from the U.S., France, Britain, Switzerland, Italy and Chile.

Funes first discussed the issue of possible alien life in an interview in the Vatican's daily newspaper a year ago.

Much has changed within the Church of Rome since the days of Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1600 when he considered that other planets could be home to alien life forms.

Impey believes that the discovery of alien life may be a few years away, considering the fact that hundreds of planets have been found outside out solar system, including 32 new ones announced recently by the European Space Agency.

"If biology is not unique to the Earth, or life elsewhere differs bio-chemically from our version, or we ever make contact with an intelligent species in the vastness of space, the implications for our self-image will be profound," he said.

However, the Vatican has shown an interest in extraterrestrials before, when its observatory gathered top researchers in the field for similar discussions in 2005.

In last year's interview, Funes told Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that faith in God should not be compromised by believing the universe may host aliens, even intelligent ones.

"How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?" Funes said in that interview.

"Just as there is a multitude of creatures on Earth, there could be other beings, even intelligent ones, created by God. This does not contradict our faith, because we cannot put limits on God's creative freedom."

He went on to explain that even extraterrestrials would be considered as "part of creation."

The Church of Rome continues to adapt to the times and now even top clergy, like Funes, are unabashedly approving scientific ideas like the Big Bang theory as a reasonable explanation for the creation of the universe. The theory claims that billions of years ago the universe began with the explosion of a single, super-dense point in which was all existing matter.

The Vatican even went as far as to sponsor a conference on evolution earlier this year for the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species."

The Catholic Church and other religions are still divided over the issue, with some believing so strongly in creationism or intelligent design, making it difficult to accept that there may be life on other planets.

Pope Benedict XVI made forging faith and reason a top priority in his papacy. Therefore, working with scientists to probe the fundamental questions that are of interest to religion is simply in keeping with his teachings.

With the church's history of hostility and violence toward science, other recent popes have also been working to repair the reputation of the church's relationship between faith and science.

For example, Pope John Paul II stated that the ruling against the Galileo was an error springing from "tragic mutual incomprehension" in 1992.

Last month, the Vatican Museums unveiled an exhibit to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first celestial observations.

President of Italy's national institute of astrophysics Tommaso Maccacaro, said at the October 13 opening of the exhibit that astronomy has majorly influenced the way man perceives himself.

"It was astronomical observations that let us understand that Earth (and man) don't have a privileged position or role in the universe," he said. "I ask myself what tools will we use in the next 400 years, and I ask what revolutions of understanding they'll bring about, like resolving the mystery of our apparent cosmic solitude."

The Vatican Observatory has also been on the cutting edge of efforts to reconcile religion and science. Its scientist-clerics have come out with brilliant research and sports one of the best meteorite collections in the world.

Pope Leo XIII founded the observatory in 1891 in Castel Gandolfo, a lakeside town in the hills outside Rome where the pope spends his summers. The Vatican also conducts research at an observatory at the University of Arizona, in Tucson.

Image Courtesy ESA, NASA, M. Kornmesser (ESA/Hubble), and STScI


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