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Theology can help guide speculation about aliens, professor says

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Fundamental theological principles provide the framework for any doctrinal questions over the discovery of extraterrestrial beings, a theologian claimed in a lecture on June 5. 

While the Church does not have any specific teachings on extraterrestrial life, theologians can speculate on the existence of these beings and their nature due to the “underlying principles” which influence Church doctrine, said Dr. Christopher Baglow, director of the Science and Religion Initiative at the University of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life, on Saturday. 

“We have something, in a way, more essential than doctrine to guide us: What St. John Henry Newman identified as the permanent elements in the development of doctrine, the underlying principles which animate doctrines,” he said.  

“According to Newman, these principles are so important that they are the very life of doctrines,” and “an even better test of heresy than doctrine,” Baglow said.

Regarding the possibility of an extraterrestrial incarnation, Baglow cited sacramentality and solidarity for why it could have occurred. 

If rational life existed outside of earth and were to be discovered, it would not be theologically inconsistent to believe that the extraterrestrial rational beings were creatures of God in need of a savior to achieve salvation, he said. Baglow referred to this as “incarnational plurality,” adding that God would not be limited by constraints. 

Baglow delivered the keynote lecture, titled “Extraterrestrial Life and Catholic Theology,” on June 5 at a conference for the Society of Catholic Scientists in Washington, D.C. 

The fourth annual conference of the society was held June 4-6, and focused on “Extraterrestrials, A.I., and Minds Beyond the Human.” It featured lectures and presentations on the theological implications of extraterrestrial life and artificial intelligence. The conference was broadcast online, as international members were not permitted to travel to the United States.

“When we talk about extraterrestrial rational species (ETRS), we are not discussing angelic creatures, but embodied ones. In particular, animals, rational animals, like us,” he explained. 

These species would likely have a society, with differing cultures, similar to humans. Baglow pointed out that in the animal world, more intelligent and rational creatures tend to be more social, so it would make sense that the ETRS beings would be social as well. 

The ETRS would have liturgy and rituals, although Baglow said that what these would entail is “beyond my imagination.”

These species would have “some history” where God made Himself accessible to them, said Baglow. 

If these species were “in need of salvation, there would be a real history of divine engagement and self-revelation with that species,” with laws, prophets, “music-makers and poets,” elders and sages, and finally, there would be a member of the species who was “fully ETRS, but fully God.” 

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“It would be this one who would draw together and fulfill all (that) the great ones spoke and did. Because God can be no more perfectly mediated than by mediating himself as a divine person who is fully ETRS,” said Baglow. 

According to the Society of Catholic Scientists website, “The Society exists as a place where Catholic scientists can share their knowledge, perspectives, and intellectual and spiritual gifts with each other for their mutual enrichment, and with fellow Catholics and the wider community.” 

The society was founded in 2016 with only six members, and has grown with now more than 1400 scientists, students, and other intellectuals in more than 50 countries.  

Lawrence Principe, professor of the humanities at Johns Hopkins University, delivered the St. Albert Award Lecture on June 5.

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Other scheduled conference speakers included Jonathan Lunine, director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science; Karin Öberg, a Catholic convert, professor of astronomy and director of undergraduate studies at Harvard University; and Simon Conway Morris, chair of evolutionary palaeobiology at the University of Cambridge.

The society says it “hopes to provide role models and mentors for young Catholics” who are studying the sciences in universities. All scientists who are practicing Catholics are permitted to join.

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