Monday, May 30, 2011

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences: Study Week on Astrobiology Honors Galileo

Listen to the facinating and thoughtful interview with NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) Director Carl Pilcher and Vatican Observatory astronomer and Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno.

In November 2009, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences hosted a Study Week on Astrobiology to commemorate the fourth centenary of Galileo Galilei's first observations by telescope.

Wikipedia explains that "Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe." NASA has a site that explains astrobiology as well as the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI). You can read the biographies of the scientists who participated in the Vatican Study Week beginning on page 14.

The Catholic News Service (11-10-09) reports on the conference and how the leaders of the Catholic Church view the possibility of extraterrestrial life from both a scientific and religious perspective:

[Jesuit Father Jose Funes, head of the Vatican Observatory/homepage] said that even though the study week looked exclusively at scientific evidence and theories, it was "very important that the church is involved in this type of research" looking at life in the cosmos.

He quoted Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, president of the commission governing Vatican City, as telling participants that "truth from research cannot make us afraid; what is to be feared is error."

Science opens up the human mind to new knowledge and contributes toward the fulfillment of humankind, the cardinal said, according to Father Funes.

When asked whether God would have to be incarnated elsewhere if there were intelligent life on another planet, Father Funes recalled the parable of the lost sheep.

God's incarnation in Jesus Christ was a singular and "unique event not only in human history but in the history of the universe and the cosmos," he said.

The existence of evil and original sin on Earth meant God, the good shepherd, had to leave behind his entire flock to go get his one lost sheep, he said.

"Humanity would be this lost sheep and in order to find this lost sheep (God) became man in Jesus," Father Funes said.

In May 2008, Father Funes gave an interview to L’Osservatore Romano titled "The Extraterrestrial is my Brother" (5-14-08). An article describing this remarkable interview was published by the Catholic News Agency (5-13-08).

I don't read Italian, but the Google translation of Father Funes' full interview in LOR seems consistent with this blog translation. At the end of the interview, Father Funes was asked if extra-terrestrials would need to be redeemed from sin:

LOR: And what about redemption?

FUNES: We borrow the gospel image of the lost sheep. The pastor leaves the 99 in the herd for go look for the one that is lost. We think that in this universe there can be 100 sheep, corresponding to diverse forms of creatures. We that belong to the human race could be precisely the lost sheep, sinners who have need of a pastor. God was made man in Jesus to save us. In this way, if other intelligent beings existed, it is not said that they would have need of redemption. They could remain in full friendship with their Creator.

LOR: I insist: if they were sinners, would redemption also be possible for them?

FUNES: Jesus has been incarnated once, for everyone. The incarnation is an unique and unrepeatable event. I am therefore sure that they, in some way, would have the possibility to enjoy God’s mercy, as it has been for us men.

The Washington Post (11-8-09) and the Guardian (11-11-09) also covered the Pontifical Academy's astrobiology conference; but instead of focusing on the scientific presentations, the newspapers focused more on scientists who believe that the possibility of extraterrestrial life is fraught with troubling theological implications for Christianity.

Even NASA has posted an article about the Pontifical Academy's Study Week on Astrobiology:

This past week in Rome as part of the International Year of Astronomy, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences hosted a Study Week on Astrobiology, an interdisciplinary event during which “cloistered astrobiologists confronted each other’s fields of research” and dialogued about the connections. The participants included many from the extended astrobiology community, including John Baross, David Charbonneau, Roger Summons, Andy Knoll, Chris Impey, Jonathan Lunine, Jill Tarter, Sara Seager, and Giovanna Tinetti.

“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, in an Associated Press Interview. Funes, a Jesuit priest, also said that 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. RadioVaticana reports.

Today, NAI Director Carl Pilcher and Vatican Observatory astronomer and Jesuit brother Guy Consolmagno continue the conversation with Anna Maria Tremonti, host of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s radio program The Current. Their discussion ranges from what it would mean to the Church if alien life were found, to whether or not science needs religion.


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