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Catholic priests, scientists head to Rome to ponder alien life

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The Vatican may be a little closer to deciding how it deals with the tricky problem of extra terrestrial - and most likely non-Catholic - life forms, as it wraps up a conference on astrobiology this week.

The Vatican Observatory has been running a "joint study week" on Astrobiology this week together with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

The Vatican has been already deemed 2009 to be the International Year of Astronomy, with the Pope kicking off proceedings last December by saying what a standup guy Galileo was, and musing on the pagan origins of the Roman cityscape.

According to Marc Kaufman at the Washington Post, the study week includes sessions on how life might have begun on Earth, what harsh environment microbes on earth point to on other planets, and how lifeforms on other planets could be recognised.

Of course, you might be forgiven for thinking the Catholic Church has many of these issues - particularly the first - licked. But the one true church can be broader than expected at times.

As Kaufman points out, NASA is already pondering how the news of extra terrestrial life might affect things down here on Earth.

Clearly, the Vatican is pondering some of the same issues. Some in the Catholic Church don't see a theological problem with the idea of extraterrestrial life per se. God, being omnipotent, would be perfectly at liberty to create other lifeforms.

Last year, Vatican Observatory boss José Gabriel Funes told Papal inhouse paper L'Osservatore Romano: "To say it with St Francis, if we can consider some earthly creatures as 'brothers' or 'sisters', why could we not speak of a 'brother alien'? He would also belong to the creation."

Funes even suggested aliens might not suffer from that human burden original sin. Which would arguably make it easier for the Vatican to accommodate alien life, as it wouldn't feel duty bound to covert any aliens it encountered.

But Kaufmann quotes one of the conference's speakers, Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist from Arizona State University, who believes the issue is being downplayed by religious leaders.

"The real threat would come from the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, because if there are beings elsewhere in the universe, then Christians, they're in this horrible bind. They believe that God became incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ in order to save humankind, not dolphins or chimpanzees or little green men on other planets."

Whether we'll see a definitive statement on whether aliens can join the Church of Rome any time soon is debatable. After all, the Vatican has only just welcomed back a chunk of the Church of England, a mere 500 years after Henry VIII broke with Rome. ®

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