Less than 40 light-years away, in the constellation Aquarius, astronomers have just discovered seven new Earth-size planets, circling a dim dwarf star named Trappist-1 — and at least three of these rocky planets could support life. The three “life-friendly” planets rotate around Trappist-1 in what is called the “habitable zone,” where the temperature and other conditions make it possible for water to exist.
When scientists from NASA and from a Belgian-led research team announced their finding on February 22, 2017, the news was greeted with excitement. Could we have neighbors? Scientists will have to study conditions on the planets, before speculating on whether there are space creatures we’ve yet to meet.
While scientists plot their next steps in the cosmos, I am remembering a book I reviewed a few years ago by Jesuit astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno. Brother Guy explored the issue of life on Mars and more in his book co-authored with Father Paul Mueller, S.J., Would You Baptize an Exterrestrial?… And Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-Box at the Vatican Observatory. Together, the Jesuit scientists looked at serious and humorous questions from the astronomers’ in-box and revealed how science and faith look at the same issues in different but complementary ways.
Pope Francis raised the issue in a homily in May 2014, asking,
“Imagine if a Martian showed up, all big ears and big nose like a child’s drawing, and he asked to be baptized. How would you react?”
The point he was making is that everyone has the “right” to receive the Holy Spirit — even if, as in the case of scary green creatures from outer space — they seem quite different from us.
Imagine that NASA might one day encounter real live beings on these newly discovered planets. American scientists would have some difficult decisions, such as whether to invite the spacemen back to our planet for a visit.
But the Catholic Church, for its part, stands ready to welcome the stranger — and to make him feel right at home.