Vatican City (April 8, 1996) -- E.T., phone home. The Church wants to talk to your fellow aliens.
After the recent discovery of a planet orbiting a sun-like star, some theologians have been gazing skyward and wondering whether evangelization should extend to outer space.
Christ's message is not confined to a single planet or solar system, they said in Decenber interviews. But is the church ready for close encounters of the missionary kind?
Probably not, says an Italian theologian, Father Piero Coda. The discovery of intelligent alien beings outside our own world would find church leaders pretty much surprised and unprepared, he said.
Some immediate theological questions would be raised. Does the alien race have original sin? Have they been redeemed -- or do they need salvation? How much of our own salvation history do they share?
It's all very hypothetical, of course. The surface of the planet found in October  is about 1,800 degrees, which means life there is either non-existent or very well-insulated.
But according to scientists' calculations, there's a high probability that other earth-like worlds exist somewhere out there. One study estimated there may be from 400 to 4,000 advanced civilizations in our own galaxy -- and our is only one of about 100 billion galaxies in the universe.
Father Coda, whose comments caught the attention of church and Vatican officials, said he thinks the church should be oriented toward evangelizing extraterrestrials. [Catholic] faith, he said, teaches that every being in the universe has a fundamental link to God's creation and the salvation received through Christ.
The meeting of our diverse worlds could enrich the faith, as happened when the Americas and other unknown cultures were discovered some 500 years ago, he added.
But others are more cautious.
"Prudence, prudence, prudence. We need to avoid 'science-fiction' theology," said Dominican Father Georges Cottier, secretary of the International Theological Commission and Pope John Paul II's in-house theologian.
He added, however, that evangelizing extraterrestrials is more than a frivolous issue. Theologians are starting to think about it. But it's so hypothetical now that no valid theological conclusions can be drawn, he said.
"If intelligent life were discovered, we'd have to ask how the universal nature of Christ's salvation would enter in. Would they have original sin? This we don't know," he said.
At the Vatican Observatory just outside Rome, where star-gazing and theology sometimes mix, Jesuit Father Sabino Maffeo found guidance in St. Paul's statement that "the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains" until Christ's coming, and will share in the glory of redemption.
But "we don't have the data" to say whether alien beings are saved by Christ in the same way that we are, Father Maffeo said. He added that the topic is a strange one for theology, which generally reflects on revealed truth. If the Bible and the Apostles had nothing to say about other worlds, it raises many tricky questions, he said.
A few years ago, the observatory's director, U.S. Father George Coyne, spoke at a scientific forum on the theory of multiple universes. He said he thought the idea that other life forms could have their own relationship with God was consistent with Christianity's notion of a God who is "free but not arbitrary."
But he acknowledged that this theory tends to remove human beings from the center of the universal stage.
At the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, there's no "Department of Outer Space" -- not yet, anyway. One official there said that if other-worldly life were discovered, the church's top doctrinal experts would want to consider all the possibilities, including the rather dubious one of another savior for another galaxy.
"If other solar systems are considered part of our world, I would think the same economy of salvation would hold there as well as here," the oficial said.
"But the big question is original sin. If they've never had original sin and are in a state of grace, and everything's going smoothly up there, then maybe salvation in this sense is not needed," he said.
Neither missionary officials nor theologians are staying up late at night worrying about all this, but like distant stars, the questions are starting to flicker on the horizon.
Original file name: CNI - Catholics for E.T.? 4.8
This file was converted with TextToHTML - (c) Logic n.v.