Catholics and the Extraterrestrial Question

What do we do with the possibility of extraterrestrial life — if E.T. really does come? How would this square with our doctrines of original sin and redemption? Here are a few thoughts about how one might consider this issue as a Catholic.

First, I would say there’s a bit of “necessity” in thinking on this topic out there. In other words, the assumption is often something like: “Well, the cosmos is so vast that all possibilities must eventually be realized; and life arising by chance is a possibility; therefore, there must be life out there somewhere.”

While the Church does not have a problem with evolution per se (I would recommend here Cardinal Christoph Schonborn’s Creation, Evolution, and a Rational Faith), this does seem to be a bit of an a priori leap. In other words, I can certainly think of a reason why the cosmos is so vast, apart from the question of extraterrestrial life — it teaches us something about the infinite vastness of its Creator.

But that aside, we too should not be dogmatic on this issue.

So what if — in God’s providence — there really is extraterrestrial life out there? How might we consider this in light of our faith? Would it be a body blow for Christianity? I think not for the following reasons.

In Whom and For Whom?

Perhaps the place to start is the cosmic significance of Jesus Christ as taught, for example, in Colossians 1:16-17: “For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible … all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things and in him all things hold together.” Notice, Jesus is the one in whom and for whom all things are created, and in whom they continue to exist—and this pertains to the entire cosmos.

Further, the Incarnation has effected a change in human nature as such. That is, the Incarnation brings about a relation between the eternal Son and every single human being. As John Paul II once put it, “God has embraced all men by the Cross and Resurrection of His Son” (Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 74). And Gaudium et Spes is even stronger: “For by His Incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man” (for more on this my book Nature and Grace, pages 186-94). While this does not mean redemption is automatic—as if de facto salvation is universally guaranteed—it does entail that the Incarnation touches every single human being.

What Is a Rational Animal?

What are “aliens,” philosophically speaking? And what is the essence of a human being—and how might the two relate?

Aristotle long ago captured the essence of man: human beings are rational animals. “Animal” here in the language of logic is the “genus” — that is, the larger category; and “rational” is the “specific difference” — that which specifies or distinguishes man from other creatures within the same larger category (i.e., within the same genus).

Notice that the definition does not pertain to appearances. This is relevant for both extraterrestrial life and the question of “cavemen” (and even the egregious error of racism). We often adopt a materialistic view of man’s origins — as if we’re simply apes with a few more neurons firing. But the fact is reason — as Aristotle understood it — is an all-or-nothing phenomenon. On the one hand, there is a great deal of similarity between us and the higher mammals; nonetheless, we’re interested in studying their genetic code, not the other way around. Despite all the material overlap, there is formally a great difference — a difference in kind, not just degree.

What this means is regardless of appearance — whether they have one eye or three, whether they are green or purple — if they have bodies and are rational, “aliens” would likewise be rational animals and would have the same essential nature as us.

How would we know if they are rational in this philosophical sense? Well, a place to start would be whether or not we see a sign that says “Do not kill.” Do they have a moral awareness? Do they make laws? Do they bury the dead? Do they have religious traditions? Do they have language — not just communication? Animals certainly communicate, but they don’t use similes and metaphors — they don’t communicate with grammar and syntax. Think about all the different ways we can use a preposition — e.g., the dog is in the yard (spatial); the idea is in my mind (non-spatial); all the colors are in white light; the meaning of a word is in the configuration of the letters; the meaning of love lies in self-gift; or human nature exists in individual humans.

For by His Incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man. (Pope John Paul II, Gaudium et Spes, 22)

Higher animals might identify objects with verbal sounds, but they don’t use language the way we do—and the reason is the great difference of our rational soul. Consider, lastly, the fact that we use language to refer to objects that are not immediately perceptible, or may not even be perceptible in principle: can we see the concept “the day after tomorrow”? Or a “black hole,” a “quark” or other sub-atomic particles? Or “angels,” or “God” — all of which we can discuss but are not perceptible in principle? We won’t find higher animals discoursing about such things and this shows again the clear difference of man—the difference of a rational soul.

So, if aliens performed any of these activities (and had bodies), we would have grounds to say they are rational animals; that is, they are embodied persons as we are.

And if the Incarnation effects a relationship between the eternal Son and all human beings, then perhaps we can say the Incarnation would effect a relation with aliens as well. It’s fair to say when the eternal Son became man, there came about a new relation between the eternal Son and all embodied persons—all rational animals.

Aliens, then, would stand in the same relation to Jesus Christ as human beings on Earth who have never heard of Jesus (those who have not been baptized). As the Church has always taught, such persons can be saved, but they would be saved in and through the person and work of Jesus Christ, whether or not they’re aware of this. If they are saved, they are saved through their reception of the baptismal grace, but in a non-ordinary way and not through the ordinary waters of baptism (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 1257-1260).

And maybe, one day we would send great missionaries to these outer reaches of the cosmos, just as so many Jesuits for example spanned the globe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

What about the Fall?

First, in Catholic tradition, the pre-fallen state is a state of grace, not one of mere nature. Man’s original rectitude — his original justice and holiness — is due to grace, not mere nature. That is, his immortality and alignment of intellect, will, and passions are all the fruit of grace. Following from this, the state of original sin is the privation (the lack) of this primordial grace.

In the Church’s language, there really was a Fall (see CCC 390), but clearly the narrative is told in a figurative (even mythic) manner. Adam is both an individual and a representative (see Genesis 5:2 where the Hebrew word “adam” refers to “mankind”). The status of this first Adam is not something that can be scientifically proven or disproven; it is a question beyond the veil of any present inquiry we could perform from our side of things.

The key question, especially as it pertains to our issue, is how the state of original sin is transmitted. Traditionally, we’ve generally thought of this as occurring through the physical propagation of the human race, from parents to offspring.

However, I would say it is essential to the Faith that original sin is passed on to us from our first parents—that we need redemption; but exactly how this transmission takes place is not something I would take to be dogmatically defined.

For our reflections, what if the transmission of original sin is formal, as opposed to material?

In other words, what if we take the Incarnation as our model—which effects a change in the relation between God and our formal human nature as such? Might the same be said with regard to the Fall?

This would be to say, then, that Adam’s fall — since he was representative of mankind — effected a change in man’s nature as such, formally, regardless of direct physical lineage.

And if we recognize, philosophically, that aliens would be rational animals, then we can say both that (1) Adam’s fall implicated them (and thus they would inherit its consequences); and (2) the Incarnation would likewise bring them into a new relation with God, over against the one established merely by creation.

God is the Source of All Truth

At the end of the day, God is the author of the orders of nature and grace, of creation and redemption. Whatever scientific truth is uncovered is simply an analysis of the “book of nature,” of which God is the author. There can be no authentic contradiction between the orders of faith and reason—because, again, God is the source of both. But of course there can be an apparent contradiction, and these inevitably stem from either a misinterpretation of the actual scientific facts, or a misunderstanding of what is essential to the Faith. But we need not be afraid — and we should unabashedly study and revere the two “books” God has given us — the “book of nature” and the Bible and let the truth of each illumine the other.

No matter how this question comes down, this truth proclaimed by John Paul II will remain the same: “Jesus Christ is the center of the universe and of history” (Redeemer of Man, no. 1). The climactic struggle between good and evil — the climactic revelation of the love of God in and through Jesus Christ—took place on this Earth, making it the center of all things. This would remain no matter how vast the cosmos is and no matter how many other civilizations of “aliens” there might be.

How can we better come to grips with the Lordship of Jesus Christ and his cosmic significance?

This appeared at Ascension Press.
Image: Student Ben Bogner at Benedictine College’s Observatory preparing for his NASA internship.

Andrew Swafford

Andrew Swafford is Associate Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. He is general editor and contributor to The Great Adventure Catholic Bible published by Ascension Press and host of the video series (and author of the companion books) Hebrews: the New and Eternal Covenant, and Romans: The Gospel of Salvation, both published by Ascension. Andrew is also author of Nature and Grace, John Paul to Aristotle and Back Again; and Spiritual Survival in the Modern World. He holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from the University of St. Mary of the Lake and a master’s degree in Old Testament & Semitic Languages from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is member of the Society of Biblical Literature, Academy of Catholic Theology, and a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. He lives with his wife Sarah and their five children in Atchison, Kansas.