New book addresses extraterrestrial life and the Catholic faith

TAN Books
Tim Walch reviews “Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Catholic Faith” by Paul Thigpen.

By Tim Walch
Book Review

“Extraterrestrial Intelligen­ce and the Catholic Faith,” by Paul Thigpen, TAN Books, 2022, 441 pages, $29.95.

Did you ever stare up at the stars and wonder about life on other planets? I know that I did! And if there’s intelligent life out there, how do those life forms celebrate the wonder of God? Questions like that make my head hurt!


To the rescue comes Paul Thigpen with this new book on extraterrestrial intelligence and the Catholic faith. There’s no question that Thigpen is an excellent authority on the challenging questions of our religious faith and the great beyond. He holds advanced degrees from Emory University and has authored 59 books and hundreds of journal articles.


Even with these impressive credentials, however, Thigpen does not claim to be an authority on the science of extraterrestrial life. He’s a theologian who concentrates on how our faith informs what we do not know. In short, Thigpen doesn’t have answers, but he does ask penetrating questions.

The book’s 14 readable chapters trace the interest in life on other planets from the earliest Greek thinkers, such as Plato and Aristotle to theologians such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, to scientists such as Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler, and philosophers such as Newton, Voltaire and Kant. These are only a few of the great minds who have weighed in on the debate.

Thigpen traces the observations of these great thinkers and adds personal reflections on the passages in Scripture and in Church teaching that offer additional perspective for Catholics. Would the discovery of extraterrestrial life be a threat to the faith of Catholics or would it clarify and confirm our faith?

Thigpen believes that “the Christian faith as traditionally held by the Catholic Church would not be contradicted by the public discovery or discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence.” He writes with a confidence and humility that comes from years of study.

So, why is the question of religious faith and life on other planets so important? Thigpen ends his book with three observations for continued reflection. First, he states the obvious — the question of planetary exploration and extraterrestrial life is growing and people of faith have much to offer the debate. Science and faith are fully compatible.

Thigpen’s second observation is a bit chilling. Although there’s no evidence of extraterrestrial life, our planet needs to be prepared to eventually encounter and accept the facts of its proof and existence. Just as the Church eventually reconciled theology and science in the age of Copernicus and Galileo, we need to embrace the new discoveries coming from space science in this century.

Third, Thigpen embraces the hope that future generations will learn from intelligent terrestrials. Thigpen speculates that these new life forms will have spiritual beliefs and a code of morality. He then asks: “How will we respond to this exchange of ideas? “What could we learn from them? What could we teach them? And, more urgently, do we need to evangelize them?”

There’ll be no answers to these questions anytime soon. Thigpen closes with a long quote from the philosopher C. S. Lewis that reminds us to be humble in the face of God’s plan not only for this world but also for the vast universe beyond.

Recent discoveries from the new James Webb telescope offer the prospect that we may soon discover extraterrestrial life. It seems to me that NASA should consider adding a theologian to its space exploration team. I nominate Paul Thigpen for the job.

(Timothy Walch is a lay director at St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville, a member of The Catholic Messenger’s Board of Directors, and a regular book reviewer for the Messenger and other publications. His most recent book is “Irish Iowa,” 2019.)

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