Extraterrestrials Aren’t a Threat to Theology, Because They Aren’t New to the Ancient Church

(Gravestone of a woman with her slave child-attendant, Greek, c. 100 BC, Getty Villa, Usa; Source, Wiki Commons, CC BY SA 3.0).
Some say this sculpture depicts an extraterrestrial laptop . . . (Gravestone of a woman with her slave child-attendant, Greek, c. 100 BC, Getty Villa, USA, taken by Wolfgang Sauber; Source, Wiki Commons, CC BY SA 3.0).

I’m completely enthralled with the question, “Is there anybody out there?”
–Fr. Brian Reedy SJ

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration captured the attention and imagination of a global audience late last month when NASA scientists announced the discovery of seven planets orbiting a star dubbed TRAPPIST-1 (an acronym for Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope). These planets are a mere 40 light-years away from Earth, all of which are Earth-sized, and three of which are in the so-called “goldilocks” or habitable zone – meaning that their positions relative to their “home” star suggest they could have liquid water and temperatures capable of sustaining life as we know it.

The headlines were sensational: a few almost announcing the discovery of whole extraterrestrial civilizations; most seizing the moment to move copy and sell soap with variations on the theme of, “‘Incredible’ Star System Could Hold Life“, with follow-up stories announcing, “The Prospects for Life on TRAPPIST-1 Keep Getting Better” and “Soon, We’ll Know if there’s Life on TRAPPIST-1’s Exoplanets“. 

The interest is not only scientific, but also theological, with the leading English-language e-journal of Catholic affairs, Crux, holding its breat while asking, “Could Catholicism Handle the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life?

The fact is, such speculation is neither new, nor controversial.

The ancient Greeks split on the question, which they treated as a speculative scientific one; Arabic literature in the high Islamic period entertained the idea in fiction (notably in the “Adventures of Bulukiya”  portion of The Arabian Nights, in tales from the 486th to the 537th night); Nicholas of Cusa openly speculated that some heavenly bodies, at least, would almost certainly be inhabited; C.S. Lewis famously wrote a Space Trilogy in the middle of the last century.

The best starting point for reflection upon the ancient world’s fascination with this topic is The Extraterrestrial Life Debate: Antiquity -1915 A Source Book, edited by Michael J. Crowe.

And so, if you are asking whether the discovery of extraterrestrial life would pose a challenge to the basic tenets of Catholic faith, then the answer is that it would pose no real trouble. There’s nothing new (under the sun) about the questions such a discovery would elicit.

However, the recent find does offer an occasion to do some serious thinking and ask challenging questions about life, the universe, and our place in it . . .

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