Publisher’s note: for those unaware of recent developments on the topic of “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” or UAPs, the U.S. Military has declassified several videos showing recent encounters between fighter planes and UAPs (conventionally known as UFOs) as well as Naval ship-based surveillance of the same. An intelligence report disclosing more information on the topic is due out later this month, as ordered by a provision in last year’s COVID relief bill, signed by President Trump. I recently wrote up a summary of these events, including links to some of the pertinent video clips, right here.
Although I am personally fascinated by the possibility of extra terrestrials, I remain, by necessity, an “optimistic skeptic” about the likelihood of extra terrestrial life. I believe the only reasonable course of action is to examine the evidence and see where it leads us. Since this is a topic about which good Catholics can disagree, and since we seek at 1P5 to promote balanced, critical analysis, we are happy to provide the following for our audience to consider. We hope that it will stimulate your imagination to more deeply consider the possibilities — and the potential implications — of a situation that is currently the topic of much interest and debate.
In heated discussions on faith and science, one expert is routinely overlooked: Stanley L. Jaki, OSB (1924-2009). Jaki, a Hungarian priest, was one of the most decorated scientists of his generation. He is perhaps most well known for his books on the history of science, but he wrote prolifically on a variety of topics ranging from G. K. Chesterton to computers to a delightfully scientific commentary on the Psalms.
More topically for our purposes, Jaki wrote on the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI) in at least two of his books: The Savior of Science, and Limits of a Limitless Science. I typed up both quotations in full here, and have taken on the daunting prospect of offering a bit of synthesis and commentary to Jaki’s arguments.
Steeped in the rigors of his scientific and Catholic learning, Jaki approached SETI with two questions: “Is extraterrestrial life likely?” and “Is the discovery of extraterrestrial life desirable?”
Regarding the first question, Jaki pointed out the obvious: the resounding lack of evidence for extraterrestrial life, despite substantial funding, support, and optimism. (There is no time to address it here, but in the fuller quotations, Jaki argued against the likelihood of aliens by arguing for the unlikelihood of the moon. It is too much to condense, but will give readers a great example of Jaki’s entertaining and brilliant style.)
“Contrary to the preliminary assurances given by a blue-ribbon committee of the National Academy of Sciences, no lichens and no mosses were afterwards found on Mars. Its surface-soil was found to contain not even the traces of death.” (The Savior of Science)
“This probability is far from being as favorable to the search for extraterrestrials as it is generally believed. Yet the media takes lightly, or simply ignores, eminent scientists who have expressed scorn for the idea that there are extraterrestrials able to communicate with us. […] [O]ne might say that the probability of finding at least one group of technologically accomplished extraterrestrials in our galaxy is utterly minimal on the basis of what we know, rather than what we may imagine in brazen disregard of facts.” (Limits of a Limitless Science)
In the former quotation, Jaki was referring to an exuberant 1966 report from the National Academy of Sciences, which can be read in full here. As recently as 2021, we still have not found life (or death) on Mars.
We must now contend with the desirability of extraterrestrial life. Assuming that there is extraterrestrial life, that we find it, that they are intelligent, that their technology allows us to communicate with them – is it likely that they will treat us benevolently? And – perhaps more importantly for us Catholics – what does this mean regarding our understanding of matter, meaning, and salvation history?
“Although only a few diehards are still looking for traces of life outside the earth within our planetary system, the prospect of detecting radio messages from other planetary systems still exhilarates many. One source of their undisguised joy is that the mere likelihood…of SETI would discredit more than anything else the most concrete form of belief in purpose, which is the belief in the Incarnation of the Son of God on this very earth. […] Addicts of SETI research hardly ever think of the dark lining behind the silvery façade of their expectations. The most frightful of those dark hues is not that, instead of distant cousins ready to fraternize with us, we might contact an alien species that would take our bodies for a convenient protein reservoir and live up thereby to the Darwinian principle of universal struggle. Fortunately, all good physics supports so far that Nobel Laureate E. Purcell, who in 1961 concluded that space travel would forever remain in its hallowed place: the cover of cereal boxes.” (The Savior of Science)
Christian faith, a unique reality on earth, is, of course, inconceivable without the Incarnation, another unique event. […] The immensity of outer space opening up in the 17th century frightened, as Pascal well put it, only the libertines, the “freethinkers” of his time. The terribly catastrophic character of cosmic spaces, as it is coming into view today, should seem hopelessly terrifying only for those who have nothing to see beyond those cosmic vistas. Today they dream about extraterrestrials, because they are afraid to be alone. Rather they should be ready to be a bit moonstruck, and to do so in the name not so much of religion, but of plain science. They might then even notice that beyond science revealed religion looms large as its saving grace.” (Limits of a Limitless Science)
It may seem odd to refer to the Incarnation at such a time, but it could not be more relevant to any discussion about life outside of our planet. The Incarnation is the great event of human history, the moment God became man; when He chose a specific moment in time, at a specific place, in a specific person, to come to Earth. All of creation led to that moment. Christ sanctified human flesh, human activities, even the elements of the earth. We must believe that matter, our matter, is good (and God said that it was good); otherwise both our religion and our science will be, as Jaki said, a stillbirth:
“[Some astronomers] assume without further ado that once there is life, there is intelligence, and once there is intelligence, there is science and advanced technology. The history of science shows exactly the opposite. Science suffered a monumental stillbirth in all great ancient cultures such as China, India, Egypt, Babylon – and Greece as well. None of them turned out to be the matrix for the formulation of Newton’s three laws, the very foundation of exact science and technology. Of those three laws Newton formulated only the third, the force law. The second law (action equals reaction) he borrowed from Descartes. The first, the most fundamental, the law of inertial motion, was formulated by John Buridan, more than three hundred years before Newton. And he formulated it in the context of his Christian belief of creation out of nothing and in time.” (Limits of a Limitless Science)
Assuming that extraterrestrial life is likely is, in Jaki’s scientific and theological analysis, far more fraught and troubling than we may realize.
Jaki is of course, but one star among a bright constellation of experts weighing in on how faith should inform the possibility of extraterrestrial life. He can claim as compatriots Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP, and, to a certain degree, Saint Thomas Aquinas in holding grave doubts on extraterrestrial life.
On the other side of the aisle: Headlines in 2014 announced that Pope Francis offered to baptize the hypothetical Martians. Father Jose Funes, the Jesuit director of the Vatican Observatory, suggested that hypothetical aliens may not need redemption from God. Karl Rahner, whose orthodoxy and significance I consider above my pay grade to evaluate, toyed with the possibility not only of aliens but of multiple incarnations. Giordano Bruno spoke favorably on the possibility of aliens. (G. K. Chesterton called Bruno an “insane mystic;” Jaki described him as a pantheist, and his work “obscurantist vagueness” of “a most virulent antiscience.”
A shocking discovery about extraterrestrial life may be unveiled at any moment, robbing me of one of my more niche axes to grind. For example, one of Jaki’s anecdotes in Limits of a Limitless Science, the lunar impact of 1178, has in recent years come under significant doubt in the face of new analysis. However, considering intelligence agencies’ track record for integrity and transparency, I wonder if Jaki would be fully convinced by recent headlines.
Naturally, none of this necessarily qualifies as an article of faith. The diversity of thought within Catholic teaching, like variety within the strictures of sonnets, is one of its most beautiful features. It is nevertheless important to listen, as much as we can, to a broad chorus of Catholic thinkers. I have found great consolation in the fact that someone holier and smarter than myself has likely asked my questions already; my job is to find them and to listen, and then to make as many people as possible read block quotations about it. Fr. Stanley Jaki represents an uncomfortable, unpopular, uncompromising voice in science and religion that should at the very least give us much to consider.
Sharon Kabel is a librarian who loves the liturgy, Catholic history, and metadata. She currently resides with her husband in North Carolina, researching the history of Latin Mass weddings and compiling data from newspaper archives.