Yesterday, some people on the Catholic blogosphere commented on a statement given by Rev Jose Gabriel Funes saying that alien life could exist. The one thing I didn’t see in the news report, and the one thing which should have been reported, is that this is a long-standing tradition and viewpoint (not doctrinal nor dogmatic, but a valid theological opinion) which existed in the Church even before the Reformation. One can find this view, for example, in the works of Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (1401 – 1464). We can see this in the following quote which pre-supposes their existence:
Therefore, the inhabitants of other stars — of whatever sort these inhabitants might be — bear no comparative relationship to the inhabitants of the earth (istius mundi ). [That is true] even if, with respect to the goal of the universe, that entire region bears to this entire region a certain comparative relationship which is hidden to us — so that in this way the inhabitants of this earth or region bear, through the medium of the whole region, a certain mutual relationship to those other inhabitants. (By comparison, the particular parts of the fingers of a hand bear, through the medium of the hand, a comparative relationship to a food; and the particular parts of the foot [bear], through the medium of the foot, [a comparative relationship] to a hand — so that all [members] are comparatively related to the whole animal.)
Hence, since the entire region is unknown to us, those inhabitants remain altogether unknown.
— Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance. trans. Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis: Arthur J Banning Press, 1990), 119 – 20.
It might surprise some that the debate on “many worlds” started before Christianity, and found itself discussed and debated in theological and philosophical circles throughout history; indeed, St Albert the Great, while he believed in one world, thought it was an important question to consider (Catholic blogosphere, take note!). The debate changed as our understanding of the universe changed. When Ptolemaic views dominated our understanding of the universe, the question of “many worlds” looked at those worlds as other universes. When we began to understand the size and depth of our universe, such as with Nicholas of Cusa suggesting our universe is infinite in size, then the question of other worlds began to reflect worlds within our own universe, and allowed people to consider other places in our universe where life could exist. At points in history, the majority view was that alien life did not exist, at other points in history, sometimes very recent, belief in other worlds was the mainstream view of Christian thought. Since the issue is very speculative, it is easy to understand why the pendulum has swung both ways in history. Some can’t see God, the God of life, making such a big universe without it being filled with life. Others can’t imagine God making such a large universe where there would be no contact with such aliens if they existed, especially in a universe founded upon for the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Whichever view one takes, it clearly isn’t news that you can believe aliens exist; but, as the National Enquirer learned long ago, headlines do sell newspapers.