The Pontifical Academy of Science recently hosted a gathering leading scientists from around the world to assess the most recent research on life in the universe and to discuss the possibility of life on other planets.
Though Father Jose Gabriel Funes said questions on life's origins and whether life exists elsewhere in the universe offer "many philosophical and theological implications," the chief papal astronomer said the five-day conference – which attracted 30 astronomers, physicists and biologists, including non-Catholics – "focused on the scientific perspective."
"The questions … are very suitable and deserve serious consideration," Funes said, according to the Vatican news service.
In recent years, technological breakthroughs have led to the discovery of more than 400 planets beyond the solar system. And with the field of astrobiology only just burgeoning, scientists such as Prof. Chris Impey of the University Arizona believe the discovery of life elsewhere may be just around the corner.
"If you were going to take a set of bets of the 30 scientists gathered for that meeting, I think most of them would have said on about a time scale of 10 years maybe," said the Tucson, Ariz.-based astronomer, who was one of the organizers of the Nov. 6-10 Vatican conference.
But Impey was quick to point out that there is a big distinction between the finding of microbial life such as bacteria – the most likely form of life to be discovered initially – and intelligent life.
"[I]t (microbial life)'s not likely to challenge the world's major religions," he told The World Today, "but if we find creatures that rival us or exceed us in intelligence, then I think that's going to be very interesting."
Though the philosophical and theological implications of the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere were not discussed during the conference, several attendees weighed in afterward with their thoughts – most of which suggested that such a discovery would not contradict scripture nor pose a problem to their faith.
Evangelical scholars have expressed similar sentiments, holding that the existence or non-existence of other people, other planets, and other universes is of no significance concerning the Christian worldview.
"If there is or is not something out there beyond our knowledge – whether it's a conscious or unconscious creature – it really doesn't matter," commented Dr. R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in a radio broadcast last year.
"What matters is what God's revealed concerning His plan for this world, this cosmos and this creature – human beings, the creature made in His image – and His redemptive purpose for us for His glory," the preeminent evangelical scholar stated.
According to Funes, participants of the recent Vatican-hosted meeting hope to publish the conclusions from the event in a book.
Topics discussed included "Formation of Earth-Sized Planets," "Habitability of Exoplanets," and "Searching for Multiple Origins of Life."
Participants included two professors from the California Institute of Technology, three professors from Harvard University, and two professors from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, among others.
The event was held to mark the International Year of Astronomy, a year-long celebration of astronomy that coincides with the 400th anniversary of the first recorded astronomical observations with a telescope by Galileo Galilei and the publication of Johannes Kepler's Astronomia nova in the 17th century.