The Catholic Church has always placed great emphasis on the natural sciences — that is, the study of objectively measurable phenomena based on empirical evidence. While extraterrestrial life, speculative as it is, does not necessarily fall under this category, the question of its existence raises theological concerns.
Fields like biology, geology and physics exemplify natural sciences that have piqued the interest of the Catholic world. And the Church has elevated plenty of men due to their success in these empirical sciences.
Gregor Mendel, who was an Augustinian friar, is the father of modern genetics. Blessed Nicolas Steno, who was a Catholic bishop, is the founder of the study of fossils. Albert the Great, a Doctor of the Church and the patron saint of the natural sciences, worked extensively in the fields of biology and physics.
While the study of God (theology) enjoys pride of place as the "queen of the sciences," knowledge of the natural world has always been promoted by Christianity. Better said, knowledge of the natural world is an essential component of Christianity.
Saint Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Romans: "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world, His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made" (Romans 1:19–20).
Drawing on Scripture and Tradition, in his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, Pope St. John Paul II emphasized the importance of reason; that is, knowledge unaided by divine revelation. He states, "The Church remains profoundly convinced that faith and reason 'mutually support each other.'"
Knowing more about "the things that have been made," such as the plants and animals, the rivers and seas, or even the sun, moon and stars, teaches us more about the Creator.
The Church's formal inquiry into astronomy, the study of the physical universe, started in the 16th century with Pope Gregory XIII. Pope Gregory commissioned the Gregorian Tower to be built mainly for the study of astronomy and the establishment of the Gregorian Calendar (which remains the internationally accepted civil calendar).
Over the centuries and with much help from subsequent pontificates, many advancements were made in the field of astronomy.
Eventually, the Vatican would even build its own observatory. Pope Leo XIII made this happen by issuing a motu proprio in 1891. In it, he ordered the Vatican Observatory to be constructed, and posited, "Among all of these [natural] studies, astronomy holds a preeminent position."
As while this may have been an accurate assessment at the end of the 19th century, it's unclear if that statement holds weight today.
At a time when our culture is attempting to redefine the most basic of human realities — namely one's unchangeable sex — the preeminent natural science of the day seems to be biology.
But this does not render the other sciences mere trifles, but it should be a consideration for 21st-century theologians.
There have always been questions surrounding astronomy, such as the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, UFOs and other worlds. And today, these topics have even entered into many political debates and hearings, so it's helpful to have a Catholic understanding of these questions.
For this Catholic understanding, watch this week's Mic'd Up featuring Dr. Paul Thigpen, author of Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Catholic Faith: Are We Alone in the Universe with God and the Angels?