Sunday, March 22, 2009

Man, Mars and Methane

Men in history have longed to find answers by personifying planets in the night sky. Is there life on Mars? What does God have to do it? Are Mars bars named after Mars?
I am very curious about the last question, but St. Clement of Rome describes the planet loving practices of ancient men best when he said that “there is a twofold atheism in which they are entangled; first, the atheism of being ignorant of God (since they do not recognize the true God); and then this second error, of believing in the existence of beings that have no existence, and calling by the name of gods those who are not really gods, nay more, who do not even exist, but have only got the name.” Modern day astronomer scientists are still happy to claim atheism as their religion and stars as their god. Where did the recent discovery of methane on Mars fit into the bigger faith picture?
Basic elements that are thought to be the foundations of life were recently discovered on Mars. Elements like carbon, hydrogen and methane, which also exist in Earth’s atmosphere, were picked up through spectral light study with some the most complicated telescopes on our planet. We can now conclusively say there is more to just the name Mars the Red Planet.
Brother Robert Novak, Ph.D., C.F.C., a professor of physics at Iona College in New York visited Loyola University New Orleans to discuss his current research using spectral observations of Mars. He presented his material with the title, “Belief in God while Searching for Life on Mars.” As an amateur researcher and theologian, I decided to find out more information for myself. I wanted to know the Roman Catholic doctrine behind astronomy and what I found surprised and tested me.
First things first, I Googled the Mars bar and did not find the origin of its name. I decided to use the next best intellectual tool I knew of, I asked my dad. He said he didn’t know. Quickly moving on to more spiritual questions, I went to find my printed copy of Fides et Ratio. I didn’t remember it being that thick! But I wanted a well-rounded understanding behind the scientist’s hope of finding something unknown by using basic truths.
John Paul II uses the phrase “esoteric speculation” when describing the pursuit of those wanting perfection in classical times. This type of higher-thinking was the height of philosophy at the time where Saint Paul admonishes Colossians saying, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe and not according to Christ.” (2:8) Would methane on Mars lead me, as well as others to worship empty elemental spirits of the universe? My faith told me no, but my reason suggested I find some teaching about the greater universe.
Something led me to Humani Generis, the short letter of Pope Pius XII on threats to Catholic doctrine. It stated at one point about scientific findings, that some people “try to withdraw from the sacred Teaching Authority and are accordingly in danger of gradually departing from revealed truth and of drawing others along with them into error.” I had to keep checking when this was written! It isn’t Benedict today, but 50 odd years ago Pope Pius XII warns against existentialism, “since it concerns itself only with existence of individual things and neglects all consideration of their immutable essences.” Possible biotic chemicals on Mars could lead many to believe in themselves as having less a soulful essence of God within, with the new planetary discoveries. But then, Pope Pius XII blew me away by stating clear explanation in a discourse on “The Question of Microseisms.” “Two essential hallmarks of the cosmos are 1. The mutability of things, including their beginning and their end. and 2. The order of finality which shines in every corner of the cosmos.” Pope Pius XII had not only defended the faith, but had used a superior reasoning for the creation of our universe.
Finally, an interview with Jesuit Father Funes, researcher and director of the Vactican Observatory Specola Vaticana, cements my understanding. “Intelligent beings, created by God would not be in contrast with our faith, because we cannot set limits to the creative freedom of God.” He goes on to suggest that we cannot set limits to God’s infinite mercy, and like St. Francis calls living creatures his brothers and sisters, therefore extra-terrestrials would still be of God’s creation. Methane on Mars is only another creation detail that is slowly revealed to an inherently good, but ignorant human race.
My faith isn’t shaken after all. Even though I had not given thought to aliens and planets in the past, it seemed our church Fathers and learned theologians had considered Mars far before I came along. This small bit of research helped me to become more profoundly aware of the depth and beauty of the Catholic Church existing in this beautiful universe and desiring to discover more of it!