Sunday, May 18, 2008

Religion: The extra-terrestrial is my brother...

Doctors meeting in the University of ParisIn an interview given by Jesuit Father José Gabriel Funes to the official Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano (May 13th, 2008), the Vatican's chief Astronomer declared that "It is possible to believe in God and in extra-terrestrials".

Is this recent position of the Catholic Church a real theological revolution or has the possibility of extra-terrestrial life already been proposed in the past by Church officials ?

It has been suggested that the recent declaration of Father Funes echoes the problematic faced by Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, in 1277 when he issued a condemnation of 219 philosophical and theological theses and among them the idea that God could only create one world, thus making him, to the eyes of some, an early defender of the idea of a plurality of worlds.

We believe however that, even if similarities do seem apparent, the bottom-line of the question is quite different and the debate do not share the same stakes now than then.

When Tempier condemned the idea that God have created a single World, he clearly defended the idea of God's omnipotence. Simply put, he refused to believe that God does not have the *power* of creating many worlds, which does not mean that Tempier believed in the actual existence of other worlds. The nuance, if subtle, is important because the stakes of the debate were then on defining the limits (or lack thereof) of God's capacity and not on the idea that the Universe could be populated by other living intelligent creatures, which was in total disagreement with the medieval interpretation of the Holy Scriptures.

To go even further, Tempier's condemnation is, in the history of medieval philosophy, a methodical attack against Scholasticism, nothing more. He particularly attacks Aristotle's De Caelo (which was just being rediscovered) on its assertion that the "First Cause cannot make many worlds". This was for Tempier an outrage to the omnipotent power of God who, if he had wished, could have created many worlds but did not have any reasons to do so because our world is already perfect. Thus, Tempier did not believe that other worlds existed, he only refused to believe that God do not have the power to create them. This nuance has not always been understood even though it is critical.

All told, it would certainly be wrong to consider Tempier's condemnation, and by extension the theological debates opposing medieval scholasticism, as a forerunner of the recent declaration from Father Funes on the possibility of extra-terrestrial life and its potential accordance to Christian faith, which we believe is an important re-evaluation of Christian thinking and cosmology.


* Bianchi, L. (1998). "1277 : a turning point in medieval philosophy ?" in Aertsen, J.A. & Speer, A. (eds). Was ist Philosophie im Mittelalter? Berlin-New York, pp. 90-110.
* Flasch, K. (1989). Aufklärung im Mittelalter? Die Verurteilung von 1277. Frankurt.
* Piché, D. (ed.) (1999). La condamnation parisienne de 1277. Texte latin, traduction, introduction et commentaire. Paris.

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