The Pope’s Telescope

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Image by Sarah G*

The discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe would be the greatest turning point in the history of humankind. Fire, the wheel, religion, organized government, the printing press, the computer—all of these breakthroughs, which have enabled us to advance in so many ways—would pale in comparison. Of course, the scenarios I’m imagining wouldn’t necessarily have to involve intelligence: mere microbes from other planets could help us cure diseases. But what does the Vatican, of all institutions, have to do with this?

In November, the Associated Press reported that “the Vatican has called in experts to study the possibility of extraterrestrial alien life and its implication for the Catholic Church.” The Reverend José Gabriel Funes, director of the 120 year-old Vatican Observatory, held a weeklong conference that brought together thirty scientists—astronomers, physicists, biologists, and other experts—to discuss these issues. Obviously, the possibility of sentient beings existing beyond Earth raises many questions for adherents of all religions, but the conference centered on science rather than theology. This interests me most, however, as an illustration of imagination at work.

In Imagination First, Eric Liu and I define imagination as “the capacity to conceive of what is not—something that, as far as we know, does not exist; or something that may exist but we simply cannot perceive” (19). Extraterrestrial life falls under the latter heading. To me, then, the Vatican’s recent research constitutes an exemplary enactment of imaginative thinking. The Catholic Church is the world’s largest religious body, one associated with centuries of tradition. We expect constancy above all from the Vatican. And yet here it is, opening to possibilities that would vastly complicate—but not contradict—its doctrine. “How can we rule out that life may have developed elsewhere?” Funes asked in the Vatican’s weekly newspaper in 2008.

The story of the Church’s investigation of alien life is not just one of an ancient organization “harnessing possibility,” as Eric and I might say. It also challenges the assumptions of those non-Catholics who perceive the Vatican as rigid or anachronistic. We recall that one of Lincoln Center Institute’s ten “Capacities for Imaginative Learning” is “exhibiting empathy,” which involves “respect[ing] the diverse perspectives of others in our community.” The truly imaginative thinker keeps his or her mind open, knowing that valuable intellectual work can be done anywhere, even by people with whom one fundamentally disagrees. Anyone interested in astronomy, in the secrets of other planets and galaxies, should therefore applaud Funes and his priestly colleagues, whose exploratory efforts embody another essential LCI capacity: “questioning.”

Click here to read an English translation of Father Funes’s 2008 interview.

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*There is a Creative Commons license attached to this image.

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