Vatican Looks to Heavens for Signs of Alien Life

By: Ariel David - AP Writer
By: Ariel David - AP Writer

E.T. phone Rome.

Four hundred years after it locked up Galileo for challenging
the view that the Earth was the center of the universe, the Vatican
has called in experts to study the possibility of extraterrestrial
alien life and its implication for the Catholic Church.

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

Funes, a Jesuit priest, presented the results Tuesday of a
five-day conference that gathered astronomers, physicists,
biologists and other experts to discuss the budding field of
astrobiology - the study of the origin of life and its existence
elsewhere in the cosmos.

Funes said the possibility of alien life raises "many
philosophical and theological implications" but added that the
gathering was mainly focused on the scientific perspective and how
different disciplines can be used to explore the issue.

Chris Impey, an astronomy professor at the University of
Arizona, said it was appropriate that the Vatican would host such a
meeting.

"Both science and religion posit life as a special outcome of a
vast and mostly inhospitable universe," he told a news conference
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."

Thirty scientists, including non-Catholics, from the U.S.,
France, Britain, Switzerland, Italy and Chile attended the
conference, called to explore among other issues "whether sentient
life forms exist on other worlds."

Funes set the stage for the conference a year ago when he
discussed the possibility of alien life in an interview given
prominence in the Vatican's daily newspaper.

The Church of Rome's views have shifted radically through the
centuries since Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned at
the stake as a heretic in 1600 for speculating, among other ideas,
that other worlds could be inhabited.

Scientists have discovered hundreds of planets outside our solar
system - including 32 new ones announced recently by the European
Space Agency. Impey said the discovery of alien life may be only a
few years away.

"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.

This is not the first time the Vatican has explored the issue of
extraterrestrials: In 2005, its observatory brought together top
researchers in the field for similar discussions.

In the interview last year, Funes told Vatican newspaper
L'Osservatore Romano that believing the universe may host aliens,
even intelligent ones, does not contradict a faith in God.

"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."

Funes maintained that if intelligent beings were discovered,
they would also be considered "part of creation."

The Roman Catholic Church's relationship with science has come a
long way since Galileo was tried as a heretic in 1633 and forced to
recant his finding that the Earth revolves around the sun. Church
teaching at the time placed Earth at the center of the universe.

Today top clergy, including Funes, openly endorse scientific
ideas like the Big Bang theory as a reasonable explanation for the
creation of the universe. The theory says the universe began
billions of years ago in the explosion of a single, super-dense
point that contained all matter.

Earlier this year, the Vatican also sponsored a conference on
evolution to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's "The
Origin of Species."

The event snubbed proponents of alternative theories, like
creationism and intelligent design, which see a higher being rather
than the undirected process of natural selection behind the
evolution of species.

Still, there are divisions on the issues within the Catholic
Church and within other religions, with some favoring creationism
or intelligent design that could make it difficult to accept the
concept of alien life.

Working with scientists to explore fundamental questions that
are of interest to religion is in line with the teachings of Pope
Benedict XVI, who has made strengthening the relationship between
faith and reason a key aspect of his papacy.

Recent popes have been working to overcome the accusation that
the church was hostile to science - a reputation grounded in the
Galileo affair.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II declared the ruling against the
astronomer was an error resulting from "tragic mutual
incomprehension."

The Vatican Museums opened an exhibit last month marking the
400th anniversary of Galileo's first celestial observations.

Tommaso Maccacaro, president of Italy's national institute of
astrophysics, said at the exhibit's Oct. 13 opening that astronomy
has had a major impact on the way we perceive ourselves.

"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 at the forefront of
efforts to bridge the gap between religion and science. Its
scientist-clerics have generated top-notch research and its
meteorite collection is considered one of the world's best.

The observatory, founded by Pope Leo XIII in 1891, is based in
Castel Gandolfo, a lakeside town in the hills outside Rome where
the pope has his summer residence. It also conducts research at an
observatory at the University of Arizona, in Tucson.


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