Canticle of Brother Extraterrestrial?
Francesco M. Valiante
Interview with Fr. Funes, S.J. Director, Specola Vaticana
And if we were to discover that we are not the only ones to inhabit the universe? The hypothesis does not worry him. It is possible to believe in God and in extraterrestrials. One can admit the existence of other lives and other worlds, perhaps more advanced than ours, without calling into question our faith in the Creation, the Incarnation and Redemption. These are the words of the astronomer priest, the words of José Gabriel Funes, director of the Specola Vaticana.
Fr. Funes, a Jesuit, was born in Argentina 45 years ago. Since August 2006 he has held the keys of the historic seat in the Pontifical Palace of Castel Gandolfo which Pope Pius XI conceded to the Vatican Observatory in 1935, In about a year's time he will hand them back, to receive in exchange those of the Basilian monastery between the Pontifical Villas and Albano, where the studies of the Specola are to be transferred, together with its laboratories and its library.
He combines calm and courteous manners with that slight detachment from earthly matters which is common to those who are used to looking heavenwards. Like all astronomers, he is part philosopher, part detective. For him, contemplating the heavens "opens our hearts, and helps us to leave behind all those infernal situations that man has created for himself on the Earth: violence, war, poverty, oppression".
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Why has the Church and its Popes taken an interest in astronomy?
We can trace its origins back to Gregory XIII, who brought about the reformation of the calendar in 1582. One of the members of the commission who studied this reform was Fr. Cristoforo Clavio, a Jesuit of the Roman College. Between the 18th and 19th centuries no less than three observatories were built by Pontiffs.
Then, in 1891, in a moment of conflict between the ecclesiastical and the scientific worlds, Pope Leo XIII decided to found, or rather re-found, the Specola Vaticana. He did this with the precise intention of showing that the Church was not against science, but that it promotes a "real and solidly based" science, to use his own words.
The Specola was born with an essentially apologetic aim, but over the years it has become part of the dialogue between the Church and the world.
Does study of the laws of the cosmos draw us closer to God, or vice-versa?
Astronomy has a profoundly human value. It is a science that opens the heart and the mind, and helps us to see our lives, our hopes and our problems in the right perspective. In this sense, and I say this as a priest and as a Jesuit, it is a great apostolic instrument that can bring us closer to God.
And yet many astronomers lose no opportunity to proclaim their atheism.
I should say that it is something of a myth to suppose that astronomy encourages an atheistic vision of the world. It seems to me that we who work at the Specola offer the best evidence of how it is possible to believe in God and at the same time carry out serious scientific work. Our work counts more than words. What counts is our credibility, the recognition we have received at an international level, our collaboration with colleagues and institutions from all over the world, the results of our research and the discoveries we have made. The Church has left its mark on the history of astronomical research.
Could you give us some examples?
Consider, for example, that about 30 craters on the moon are named after ancient Jesuit astronomers and that an asteroid bears the name of my predecessor as director of the Specola, Fr. George Coyne. We might remember the importance of contributions like that of Fr. O'Connell to the identification of the "green flash" or of Bro. Consolmagno in the declassification of Pluto, not to mention the activities of Fr. Corbally, vice-director of our astronomical centre in Tucson, who worked with the NASA team on the recent discovery of residual asteroids from the formation of binary star systems.
Could the Church's interest in studying the universe be explained by the fact that astronomy is the only science that has to do with infinity and therefore with God?
To be precise, the universe is not infinite. It is very big, but not infinite, because it has an age; about 14 billion years, according to the most recent findings. If it has an age, it must also have a spatial limit. The universe was born in a certain moment, and it has been in continual expansion ever since.
Where did it come from?
The Big Bang theory is, in my opinion, the best explanation we have had so far of the origin of the universe, from the scientific point of view.
And what happened after that?
For 300,000 years, matter, energy and light remained in a kind of mixture. The universe was opaque. Then they separated. So now we live in a transparent universe, we can see the light: the light from the most distant galaxies, for example, has reached us after 11 or 12 billion years. We must remember that light travels at 300,000 kilometres per second. And it is this very limit which confirms that the universe we can observe today is not infinite.
Does the Big Bang theory uphold or contradict the vision of faith based on the biblical story of Creation?
As an astronomer, I continue to believe that God created the universe, and that we are not the product of chance, but the children of a good father, who has a design for us based on love.
The Bible, after all, is not a book of science. As the Conciliar Document Dei Verbum points out, it is the book of the Word of God addressed to men. It is a message of love written by God to his people, in a language that dates back 2,000 or 3,000 years.
At that time, of course, the idea of the Big Bang was quite unthinkable. So we cannot ask for a scientific answer from the Bible. At the same time, we cannot know whether in the near or distant future the Big Bang theory may be superseded by some more complete and comprehensive explanation of the origin of the universe. At the moment it is the best one, it is reasonable, and it is not in contradiction with our faith.
Genesis speaks of the Earth, the animals, and men and women. Does this exclude the possibility of the existence of other worlds, or other living creatures in the universe?
In my opinion this possibility does exist. Astronomers hold that the universe is formed of 100 billion galaxies, each composed of 100 billion stars. Many of these, or almost all of them, could have planets. How can we exclude that life may have developed in other places?
There is a branch of astronomy, called astrobiology, that studies precisely this aspect, and it has made great progress in the last few years. By examining light spectra from other planets and stars, we should soon be able to identify the elements of their atmospheres, the so-called "biomakers", and understand whether the conditions for the birth and development of life exist. In fact, forms of life could exist in theory, even without oxygen or hydrogen.
Do you mean beings like us, or more highly developed than us?
It is possible. Up to now we have no proof, but certainly in a universe so vast no hypothesis can be excluded.
And would that present a problem for our faith?
I do not think it would. Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on the Earth, so there could be other beings, including intelligent ones, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith, because we cannot set limits to the creative freedom of God. If we consider earthly creatures as "brothers" and "sisters", as St. Francis did, why should we not speak also of an "extraterrestrial brother"? He would still be part of Creation.
And what about Redemption?
Let us borrow the Gospel image of the lost sheep. The shepherd leaves the other 99 sheep in the pen to go and look for the one who is lost. We think that in this universe there may be 100 sheep, corresponding to diverse kinds of creatures. We human beings may be the lost sheep, the sinners who need the shepherd. God became man in Jesus to save us. Even if other intelligent beings were to exist, they may not necessarily be in need of Redemption. They could have remained in full friendship with their Creator.
But if they were sinners, would Redemption be possible for them?
Jesus became flesh only once. The Incarnation is an event which cannot be repeated. But I am sure that they, too, in some way, would have the possibility to enjoy the God's mercy just as we have had.
Next year is the bicentenary of the birth of Darwin, and the Church will once more face the question of evolution. Is there any contribution that astronomy can make to this debate?
As an astronomer I can say that from the observation of stars and galaxies there emerges a clear evolutionary process. That is a scientific fact. But even here I see no contradiction between what we can learn from evolution and our faith in God as long as it does not become an absolute ideology. There are certain fundamental truths that do not change. God is the Creator, there is a sense to Creation, we are not the children of chance.
On this basis, is there any possibility of dialogue with science?
Indeed, I should say that it is necessary. Faith and science are not irreconcilable. Pope John Paul II said this, and Benedict XVI has reaffirmed it. Faith and reason are the two wings with which the human spirit can take flight. There is no contradiction between what we know through our faith and what we can learn through science. There may be conflicts and tensions, but we must not be afraid of them. The Church does not fear science and its discoveries.
As it happened with Galileo.
That is certainly a case which left a mark on the history of both the ecclesiastical and the scientific communities. We cannot deny that the conflict took place, and perhaps in the future there may be others like it. But I think the time has come to turn the page and look toward the future. Those events have left scars, there have been misunderstandings, but the Church has in some way recognized its mistakes. Perhaps it could have done more, but now is the moment to heal those wounds, and the way to do that is through a serene dialogue of collaboration. People need science and faith to help each other, without betraying the clarity or the honesty of their respective positions.
Why is this collaboration so difficult today?
I think that one of the problems in the relationship between science and faith is ignorance. On the one hand, scientists might learn to read the Bible correctly, and to understand the truths of our faith. On the other, theologians and men and women of the Church should keep abreast of scientific progress, in order to answer the questions which continually arise in this context. Unfortunately, even in schools and parishes, there is a lack of any programme to integrate faith and science.
How can the Specola help?
Pope John XXIII said that our mission must be to explain the Church to astronomers, and astronomy to the Church. As Benedict XVI recommended on the occasion of the last General Congregation, we must be on the frontier. I believe that the Specola has this mission, to stand on the frontier between the world of science and the world of faith, to bear witness to how it is possible to believe in God, and at the same time to be good scientists.
Weekly Edition in English
11 June 2008, page 10
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