What does Catholic teaching tell us about extraterrestrial life? This might not seem like the most pressing of theological questions, but here I must admit to being a complete and unabashed science-fiction nerd. So it is in fact the sort of thing I might dedicate some inordinate amount of thought to.
In the Introduction to his Theological primer, The Light of Christ, Fr. Thomas Joseph White says of humanity that
we want understanding, insight, and wisdom. We want to know why and what for. We wish to perceive all in the unending light of what is and cannot be. Our hearts are restless with the desire to know the truth.
So it is in the spirit of this God-given unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding that I now delve into this conundrum which came to me in the course of my theological studies.
We begin with the basic understanding that God is Love, and that this basic essence of God is reflected in all His creation. As White says, “We can see in light of the Holy Trinity that the physical cosmos ultimately exists for spiritual persons and for relational love.” I found this a bold statement and one needing further reflection. And this blog post is my means of further reflecting on it.
Not long before reading that passage, I had been reading about some excitement within the world of astronomers, who had detected an occurrence of the elusive and mostly hypothetical gravity waves, which allowed them to observe how neutron stars collide to form a black hole, and how the Universe creates heavy metals, among other things. But as these two readings came together in my brain they generated a question.
How can a cosmos of scattered worlds separated by unimaginable distances be seen as existing for communion, relationship, and love?
It is perhaps the spiritual version of Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox: based on everything we can know and observe about the Universe, there should be countless other civilizations out there. Many of them by now should be far more advanced than we are and better able to reach across those vast distances to make contact. So why haven’t they?
One could, I suppose, take the anthropocentric view that there really isn’t anyone else out there, and the entire expanse of the Universe exists just to give us something to look at each night. Maybe astronomers are merely peering deep into the inner clockwork of Creation. Personally I find this unlikely, unsatisfying, and not very convincing.
Or it could be argued that we’re really meant to look to our own house before venturing outwards. Maybe the Universe actually is filled with civilizations and sentient beings, all separated by these immense distances to keep us focused on our immediate communities and not distracted by what is beyond our reach. And then we’ll all meet up in the Kingdom at the end of time and live, as it were, happily ever after. This seems more likely, but still lacking.
As stated earlier, God created us as inquisitive beings. It is part of our nature to look to the stars, to notice other worlds not unlike our own, and to wonder. We are also created as social beings, so it is equally natural for us to want to go meet whoever is out there.
The Star Trek franchise has offered up the idea that it’s only once a planet’s population learns to coexist and to work together that they manage to venture out to other worlds. Maybe we’re living on a kind of cosmic escape room, and the only way out is to work together.
But there is another intriguing idea which came out of my theological readings.
The problem of interstellar distances is, in some sense, a problem of mortality. We just don’t have the time within our natural lifespans to make any significant or worthwhile explorations beyond our own world. But what if mortality wasn’t supposed to be part of the equation?
As human beings we are both flesh and spirit — body and soul. But these are not two separate elements. We are created as a union of material and spiritual which are meant to be inseparable. So our experience of death, which separates the soul from the body, is the result of our fall from grace and is contrary to God’s original intention.
It’s been a few decades or so since I read C. S. Lewis’s science-fiction trilogy so I don’t remember it very well (maybe it’s time for a re-read?). But I do remember that the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, introduced the idea of an interplanetary spiritual communion which Earth was not a part of. Earth is the “Silent Planet” of the book’s title, having excluded ourselves from this fellowship through our Fall from grace.
From a spiritual, Catholic point of view this might be the best explanation. It is certainly my own favorite! We fallen beings, generally given to aggression and conquest, are separated from each other by impossibly vast distances, while the rest of the cosmic population enjoy exactly the kind of vision Fr. White was talking about. “The physical cosmos ultimately exists for spiritual persons and for relational love.” And God’s plan of Salvation is to lead us back to that ideal.