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What happens to our faith if we find life out there?

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
December 21st, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Earlier this week, Astronomers announced the discovery of five more planets outside our solar system, orbiting a sun-like star, just 12 light years away. The finding is amazing because of their proximity and possible location within the star's habitable zone. However, the real story is just how common planets appear to be.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - This week saw two new planetary announcements. The first was that there are as many as three planets orbiting within the habitable zone of star Gliese 667C. The habitable zone is the region around a star where liquid water, and life as we know it, can exist.

The second announcement is the discovery of as many as five planets around Tau Ceti, a sun-like star just 12 light-years away. The star is so relatively close to us that it is visible to the naked eye. It reportedly has at least one planet within its habitable zone.

These discoveries, if they are confirmed by other scientists, will certainly be exciting, but the real story is just how common planets appear to be. According to a year-old survey published in January, 2012, there could be a minimum of 100 billion planets in the Milky Way galaxy.

With so many planets, the implication becomes stark. Some of these planets must surely be situated within the habitable zones of their parent stars, and on a fraction of those worlds, life, possibly even intelligent, may have evolved.

It does seem strange that our universe should span billions of light years, contain at least 176 billion galaxies, and be entirely devoid of life except on Earth. Indeed, the likelihood of life, even intelligent life, in the Milky Way galaxy alone is so great that virtually all astronomers regard the matter as a certainty.

However, there is no need to begin swapping stories about UFOs or to run for the basement yet. Just as astronomers believe life is certain, they also believe it is extremely unlikely to ever visit Earth. This is mostly a function of the physical and practical limitations of spacefaring, among many other concerns.

Still, the more fundamental and newsworthy question must be grappled with. What are we to do with the likelihood of life beyond our world? What does humanity say to itself when it realizes it is not alone?

Just 20 years ago, there were no other known planets in the universe. Astronomers were certain they were there, they just couldn't detect them. Who knows if in another 20 years we will be able to detect signs of life on them as well?

Sooner or later, it is likely to happen, even if the wait takes a lifetime or more.

According to the Vatican, the discovery won't be a problem for the Church. The Vatican operates an observatory in Arizona, and indeed the Vatican observatory is one of the longest, continually operating astronomical missions in the world.

Jesuit Father Jose Gabriel Funes said in an interview with L'Osservatore Romano, "Astronomers contend that the universe is made up of a hundred billion galaxies, each of which is composed of hundreds of billions of stars. Many of these, or almost all of them, could have planets. How can you exclude that life has developed somewhere else?"

"As there exist many creatures on earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God," he told L'Osservatore Romano. "This doesn't contradict our faith because we cannot put limits on the creative freedom of God. To say it as St. Francis, if we consider some earthly creatures as 'brother' and 'sister,' why couldn't we also talk of an 'extraterrestrial brother'? He would also belong to creation."

It may not be long now, before scientists are able to pool their knowledge with that of Father Funes and the Vatican astronomical mission. When that happens, we will find that creation is more wondrous and awesome than we could have ever imagined before. And that will be a glorious day for all, both terrestrial and extra.

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