The chief astronomer of the church that burned Giordano Bruno at the stake in 1600 says there is no conflict between believing in God and in the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations perhaps more evolved than humans.
"In my opinion this possibility exists," said the Reverend José Gabriel Funes, current director of the Vatican Observatory and a scientific adviser to Pope Benedict XVI, referring to life on other planets.
Asked if he was referring to beings similar to humans or even more evolved than humans, he said: "Certainly, in a universe this big you can't exclude this hypothesis."
"Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can't put limits on God's creative freedom. Why can't we speak of a 'brother extraterrestrial'? It would still be part of creation."
Funes, who runs the observatory that is based south of Rome and in Arizona, held out the possibility that the human race might actually be the "lost sheep" of the universe. There could be other beings "who remained in full friendship with their creator," he said.
Funes commentary is a giant step away from the historical record that includes the Inquisition, which condemned Galileo in the 17th century for insisting that the Earth revolved around the Sun. The Roman Catholic Church did not rehabilitate him until 1992.
"The general opinion is not always the perfect truth..." Giordano Bruno is still quoted. Such remarks produced expensive, bitter consequences: On 17th of February 1600 he publicly was burnt at the stake after eight years of torture and dungeon detention. Today the Piazza Campo dei Fiori where this statue stands has become a monument to free thinking; adjacent to the statue, is the "Fahrenheit 451" bookstore, named after Ray Bradbury's 1953 novel expounding freedom of thought.
As the Spanish physicist Beatriz Gato-Rivera wrote, Bruno "claimed that the sun was only one star among the many thousands, and therrefore, like the sun, many other stars also have planets around them and living beings inhabiting them." Gato-Rivera goes on to note that to "appreciate the genius of Bruno one has to take into account that he lived at a time when more than 99% of the intellectuals believed that the Earth was the center of the Universe, and a few others, like Copernicus and Galileo, believed that it was the Sun, instead, at the center of the Universe, and the stars being some bright heavenly bodies of an unknown nature."
On February 18th, in the year 2000, cardinal Angelo Sodano, the undersecretary of state of the Vatican, expressed the "deep regret" of the catholic church (according to Zenith News Agency with regard to the death sentence against Giordano Bruno) in a letter to the participants of a congress in Naples, which took place for the memory of this Italian philosopher in the local theological faculty 2000. It was a "terrible death", the cardinal wrote 400 years too late, "a sad episode in newer Christian history".
In Bruno's honor, a fleet of space-born laboratories -NASA's Terrestrial Planet Finder, Life Finder and Planet Imager and the ESA's Darwin Mission- will dramatically expand humanity's ability to scientifically test Bruno's vision that life is pervasive throughout the universe. The search is well underway with the discovery the past couple of years of more than 228 exoplanets (out of a universe of billions).
Funes said he believed as an astronomer that the most likely explanation for the start of the universe was "the big bang," the theory that it sprang into existence from dense matter billions of years ago. But he said this was not in conflict with faith in God as creator. "God is the creator," he said. "There is a sense to creation. We are not children of an accident."
He added: "As an astronomer, I continue to believe that God is the creator of the universe and that we are not the product of something casual but children of a good father who has a project of love in mind for us."
The Daily Galaxy via washingtonpost.com and iht.com