Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?
…and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory
How did you come up with the concept for this book?
Guy: We really only came to understand, ourselves, what this book was all about by actually writing it.
Paul: Guy and I found ourselves talking a lot, over the last few years, about the peculiar frustration we’d been feeling with the kinds of questions that we get asked here at the Vatican Observatory – questions that people send by e-mail, or ask us when we give public talks. For Guy, that frustration was a long-term thing, since he’s been at the Observatory for 18 years. For me it was a new thing, since I arrived at the Observatory just four years ago, in 2010.
Guy: Some of the questions we kept being asked seemed to be a little “off”. At first, I was tempted to just dismiss them. (Baptizing aliens? Oh, come on…)
Paul: Don’t get us wrong — we’re delighted that people are interested in the Observatory and its work, and we think it’s great that people want to ask us important questions about science and faith. But more often than not, the questions that we get seem to presuppose that there’s some sort of opposition between science and faith. The questions are often posed in such a way that we can’t give an answer without “taking sides” between science and faith. But Guy and I have no interest in “taking sides” — from our perspective, there is no opposition or inconsistency between science and faith.
And so our dilemma was this: If we gave answers to the questions, we’d end up seeming to take sides. And if we didn’t give answers to the questions, we’d be ignoring earnest inquiries from well-intentioned people. We didn’t want to do either of those things. But what to do instead?
Guy: The fact that people kept asking such questions made me realize that there must be something serious and real behind them… if only I could put my finger on what that was. Maybe those questions had hidden assumptions that weren’t quite right. But how could we tease out those assumptions?
Paul: Gradually we realized that the way for us to respond was to start out with the questions that people were asking us. But instead of trying to give answers, we should first try to sharpen and deepen those questions. If we could bring to light some of the assumptions and presuppositions hidden behind the question, then maybe we’d be able to re-pose the questions in a better way. Maybe we’d be able to come up with similar-but-different questions which wouldn’t so much demand an answer as invite people to ponder and to go deeper.
What made you decide to write it as a dialogue?
Paul: Writing the book in dialogue form, as a conversation, left us free to consider questions from various angles, in an informal way.
Guy: At first we tried to smooth it all out into one narrative, but that just drained the life out of what we were saying. Finally, we realized we were speaking in two different voices, we were each telling stories based on our own personal histories.
Paul: And the dialogue format meant that Guy and I would not have to agree with each other all the time!
That format also helped free me up from writing too much like a philosopher; in dialogue with Guy, I’m able to write more like a regular person, I think.
Guy: In fact, we finally realized that dialogue itself was what the book was all about. The thing all writers are told is to “show, not tell.” By writing in dialogue form, we could show how science and religion live together, by showing how the two of us live with our own science and religion.
What is one of the strangest questions you’ve been asked during your careers at the Vatican Observatory —one that didn’t make it onto the pages of this book?
Paul: Once when I was getting a haircut here in Italy, the barber asked me whether the Pope talks with aliens at the Observatory! But you know, lots of strange questions come up in barbershops.
Guy: Someone wanted to know if I was really in touch with aliens. When I told him I was not, he replied, “Ha! I knew you wouldn’t tell me the truth!”
What’s sad are all the people like him who don’t ask questions but who are sure they already know the answers. Unfortunately, the more certain they are, the more likely it’s nonsense. Over the years, some people have e-mailed me offering long, detailed proofs that everything we know about religion is wrong, or everything we know about science is wrong. Others have sent me detailed descriptions of their own interactions with aliens. I really feel for those people; they are in need of the sort of help that no one can give them over the internet.
By contrast, I’ve come to realize that no question is really strange, when it’s being asked in a spirit of inquiry which is truly open. If people really want to know something, and they’re open to being surprised, then their curiosity is always legitimate. A number of questions that people have asked us – and the answers we gave them – have wound up in this book.
Each of the six conversations in the book is portrayed as taking place in a different physical setting…five real and one fictional. How did you decide on these settings?
Guy: That was Paul’s idea, actually. I was skeptical, until I saw how well it worked. In fact, it worked so well that we had to add caveats through the book to remind people that it’s a portrayal, a conceit, a fiction; we didn’t actually travel to Antarctica or the Restaurant at the End of the Universe!
Paul: Once we decided to make use of specific settings, the various locations just popped up for us spontaneously. For talking about Pluto, there’s no place on earth more appropriate than Antarctica – especially since Guy has spent time there. For talking about the end of the Universe, it was obvious to me that we had to be dining at the fictional Restaurant at the End of the Universe, from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – a book which, in its own cynical way, does a wonderful job of uncovering some of the presuppositions and assumptions hidden behind questions that people like to ask.
What was your initial reaction when Pope Francis discussed the possibility of baptizing Martians in a homily in May of 2014?
Guy: I had to laugh. I knew what he was driving at, of course; but I also knew how some people would immediately take it in the wrong direction, as if he were saying we should actually be baptizing Martians. Sure enough, pretty soon there were all sorts of rumors on the internet that a Papal announcement about aliens was imminent!
Paul: Of course that was not the Pope’s intention. His main topic was the controversy in early Christianity, as to whether people had to become Jews first before they could be baptized as Christians. The early Christians ultimately came to realize that the message of Christ is universal – it is open to all people, not just to the Jews. So the point that Pope Francis was making was mainly about the universality of the Christian message, not about Martians. He was using the question about baptizing Martians to illustrate how difficult and strange the question of the universality of the Christian faith was for the early Church.
Guy: And by the way, despite its title, our book is not mainly about extraterrestrials, either. It is mainly about us humans, and how we view ourselves in this universe.
What is the coolest part of your job?
Paul: I get to live and work with a bunch of working scientists. My field is history and philosophy of science. But living here at the Vatican Observatory, on a daily basis I get pulled up short by being challenged to see and hear how things look from perspective of working scientists. That’s a good corrective for me in my own work and research. It helps keep me focused on questions that matter in the real world of science, instead of on questions that matter only to philosophers. I like that!
Another cool thing is that the scientists with whom I live and work are all people of faith – people for whom faith and science coexist without conflict and without difficulty. I like that, too!
Guy: For me… it’s that I get to handle meteorites on a daily basis. I get to hold in my hand, rocks that have been around since the beginning of the solar system, four and a half billion years ago; rocks that have been in outer space!
Where is the best place to get a cappuccino in the Vatican?
Paul: The most congenial place for a cappuccino is the coffee room of the Vatican Observatory!
Guy: We have our own full-up industrial strength cappuccino machine here at the Observatory. All astronomy runs on coffee; especially in Italy.
Paul: Every morning at 10AM all the Jesuits and lay staff members of the Observatory come together for 15 minutes of caffeinated conversation. During my first year at the Observatory, the 10AM coffee time was a struggle for me — my Italian was not yet to the point that I could take part in the conversation. But now I look forward to coffee time every day.
Guy: The Observatory is actually located an hour outside of Rome, in the papal summer gardens at Castel Gandolfo. So we don’t actually get cappuccino in the Vatican itself. That said, I do like the coffee shop in the Vatican museums; it’s right near the Pinacoteca, which is the most underrated part of the Vatican Museums and which has some wonderful old paintings of astronomical objects from the 1700s.
One of the Great Overlooked Dramas of the Nazi Era
“Better to be a beggar in freedom than to be forced into compromises against my conscience.” —Dietrich von Hildebrand
My Battle Against Hitler (Image, Oct. 21, 2014), the memoirs and essays of Dietrich von Hildebrand published for the first time in English, offers a glimpse into the heart and mind of one of the 20th century’s most important Catholic thinkers and the Nazi’s public “enemy number one” in Vienna.
Von Hildebrand, a German-Catholic philosopher and theologian, was a vocal opponent of Hitler and Nazism from the onset of the political movement in the early 1920s.
Upon Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, von Hildebrand fled from Germany to Vienna, Austria so he could devote himself entirely to the intellectual and cultural battle against the Nazi ideology.
In Vienna, with the support of Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, he founded and edited the premiere German-language anti-Nazi weekly paper, Der Christliche Ständestaat (The Christian Corporative State). For this, he was sentenced to death in absentia by the Nazis.
“It is rare today that an important new story full of vivid detail should come to light from the already much-documented Nazi period,” notes John Henry Crosby, translator, compiler, and editor of My Battle Against Hitler.
“His story might well have been lost to us,” writes Crosby in a letter to readers, “were it not for a memoir, penned near the end of his life at the request of his wife, Alice von Hildebrand.”
“I am honored to present this book to a global audience,” writes Crosby, “first as one of the great overlooked dramas of the Nazi era, and second as a gripping story of one man’s readiness to risk everything to follow his conscience and stand in defiance of tyranny.”
Praise for My Battle Against Hitler
“At this moment in history, no memoir could be more timely than Dietrich von Hildebrand’s account of how and why he risked everything to witness against the spreading evil of National Socialism. With much of today’s world silent as Christians face increasing persecution, many good men and women are asking themselves what they can do. This remarkable book will challenge and inspire them.”
—Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law, Harvard University and Former US Ambassador to the Holy See
“There is but one man who can stand with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both in intellectual brilliance and in bravery toward the Nazis; that man is Dietrich von Hildebrand. I am privileged to strongly recommend this important book as a superb introduction to this great hero of the faith. May it spawn a new generation of devotees and champions of his extraordinary thought and life.”
—Eric Metaxas, New York Times bestselling author of Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy and Miracles
“Dietrich von Hildebrand, unlike so many European Christians of his time, was an early and vigorous critic of National Socialism; a man of brilliant intellect and articulate pen who spoke out forcefully against Nazi hatred of the Jews; a scholar who defended the Christian understanding of society and the human person at immense personal cost. This wonderful collection of his writings acquaints us intimately with an extraordinary man of faith. It’s mandatory reading for anyone interested in a fuller understanding of a profoundly important era.”
—Charles J Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Philadelphia
About the Author
DIETRICH VON HILDEBRAND (1889–1977), born in Florence, was the son of renowned German sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand. A leading student of the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler, he took up the “great questions”—about truth, freedom, conscience, community, love, beauty—with a freshness that allowed him to break new ground, especially in ethics, but also in epistemology, social philosophy, and aesthetics. His conversion to Catholicism in 1914 was the decisive turning point of his life and the impetus for important religious works. His opposition to Hitler and Nazism was so outspoken that he was forced to flee Germany in 1933, and later across Europe, finally settling in New York City in 1940, where he taught at Fordham University until 1960. He was the author of dozens of books, both in German and English. He was a major forerunner of Vatican II through his seminal writings on marriage, on Christian philosophy, and on the evil of anti-Semitism.
JOHN HENRY CROSBY (b. 1978), is a translator, writer, musician, and cultural entrepreneur. He is founder and director of the Hildebrand Project, which fosters deep cultural renewal through publications, events, fellowships, and online resources that draw on the continuing vitality of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s thought and witness.
To request a review copy or to schedule an interview with John Henry Crosby, please contact Katie Moore, publicist, firstname.lastname@example.org, 719-268-1936.
The feasts have an outsized importance in Christianity. They teach doctrine. They form culture. They deliver the truths and mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ in a way that’s delightful and memorable. Think of Christmas and Easter. Every ethnic group marks those days with special customs, special foods, special songs. It’s a powerful experience for the senses; and it makes a deep impression on the mind. If you drive home from church and you’re still humming the hymns, then you’re probably also rehearsing the doctrine in your mind — without realizing it.
This book marks the third book in a series Mike and I have written for Image Books. The three books consider three Christian institutions that are supremely important for forming Christian community and individual Christians — the Mass, the parish church, and the feasts.
Q. Who should read this book? Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were writing it?
We wrote it for everyone, really. I think Catholic families will get more out of celebrating feast days after they’ve gained a deeper understanding of each day’s biblical roots, historical development, and particular symbols and customs. Clergy will find the book a treasury of good material for homilies. Non-Catholics will, I hope, find it an easy way to get to know the celebrations of their Catholic friends, neighbors, and family members.
Q. In The Feasts, you refer to the calendar as a catechism and teacher. In what ways can we learn from the feasts?
The feasts are a great delivery system for doctrine. Every Sunday, Catholics recite the Creed, confirming that they accept certain basic propositions about Jesus: that he is true God, and that he is true man, that he took flesh to be the Savior of the world. It’s good that we recite the Creed; and it’s good that we commit the propositions to memory. But I think they become more truly part of us when we sing them in Christmas carols and when we kneel before the manger. In a similar way, our Lenten exercises, like the Stations of the Cross and meatless Fridays, work on us — mind, body, and soul — in a way that abstract lessons on the atonement never could. If we have been tending to these things faithfully since childhood, that’s all the better.
There’s more than one way to teach doctrine and more than one way to learn. Through much of history, many Christians could not read. They didn’t own catechisms or subscribe to religious magazines. Yet they too kept the faith and passed it on to their children. They learned it, to a great degree, as they celebrated the cycle of feasts in the common life of the Church.
Q. In the introduction, you write: “Catholics love to celebrate the feasts, but often passively. The time rolls around each year, and we show up because we have an obligation to do so. And participating brings us joy. But our joy could be far greater if we celebrated with understanding.” What can Catholics do to better understand the feasts of the Church and celebrate them with greater intention (other than read your book, of course!)?
The feasts are part of a greater enterprise called the calendar. The Church keeps time to its own ancient rhythm — or, more accurately, eternal rhythm. If you live the life all year round, you’ll have a better appreciation of the special times. If you’ve lived a good Lent and Easter, you’ll be better prepared for Christmas, next time it rolls around. There are many good guides that help Catholics “stay tuned” in between the major holidays. The magazines Magnificat and Word Among Us come to mind. They give ordinary Catholics a way to walk prayerfully at life’s pace, from feast to feast and season to season.
Q: You write, “The feasts are to time what churches are to space.” How did you come up with such an interesting analogy?
Prayer is important to the life of both authors. Mike and I have also done a lot of spiritual reading down the years. So, if you like an analogy, there’s a good chance we learned it from some long-ago — and unfortunately long-forgotten— master.
As for that particular analogy: it seemed self-evident to Mike and me. A Church is a holy place. A feast is a holy day, a holiday.
Q. What is your favorite Catholic feast day?
My favorite liturgical celebration is the Easter Vigil, with Easter Sunday and Christmas as very close seconds. It’s my privilege to celebrate all of them in Washington’s beautiful Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle.
Of the feasts, I particularly love the Annunciation on March 25 and the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29. The Immaculate Conception has a very special place in my heart for two reasons. It is the patronal feast of the United States — and I get to celebrate that Mass in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception here in D.C. And it is also the anniversary date of my Baptism (December 8, 1940).
A newcomer among the feasts, but very dear to my heart, is the Feast of Saint John Paul II, October 22. It was my privilege to know the saint, and so the prayers of the day affect me in a powerful and personal way. That Mass I can celebrate in the National Shrine of Saint John Paul II, also here in Washington, D.C.
My co-author, Mike Aquilina, shares my love for the Easter Vigil and for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. He has a particular devotion to all the saints of the early Church, and he keeps their feasts in a special way, as he also keeps the Memorial of the Guardian Angels. The beauty of the calendar is that we hold it in common, and yet it becomes something different and beautiful in every Christian life, assuming the contours of each personality and each person’s particular vocation and graces from God.
To request a review copy or to schedule an interview with Cardinal Donald Wuerl, please contact Katie Moore, publicist, email@example.com, 719-268-1936.
“Imagine if a Martian showed up, all big ears and big nose like a child’s drawing, and he asked to be baptized. How would you react?” – Pope Francis, May, 2014
Brother Guy Consolmagno and Father Paul Mueller hear questions like that all the time. They’re scientists at the Vatican Observatory, the official astronomical research institute of the Catholic Church.
In Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? (Image, Oct. 7, 2014) they explore a variety of questions at the crossroads of faith and reason, and show how science and religion can have different but complementary ways of looking at the same issue.
“This book is about what it’s like when science encounters faith on friendly, mutually respectful terms,” writes Mueller.
Although the authors are serious scientists, the book is written for an audience of educated laypeople who are interested in both science and religion, and how each operates in our society.
“We simply want to share with you the joy and hope— and fun— that we find in doing science and living faith,” writes Mueller referring to his goal for the book. “We hope that our hope and joy will be contagious!”
Written in the form of a dialogue, the book takes place over the course of six conversations between the two authors. The six conversations are meant to recreate the sorts of conversations the authors have had with each other, with other Jesuits, and with people they’ve met through their work.
In answering those questions, the authors dispel the assumption that science and faith must be at odds with one another.
“Science and religion have common historical roots—the war between them (if there is one) has not been eternal,” notes Consolmagno. “And many people who do science are also religious. At least for them—as for the two of us—religion and science are not at war at all.”
“Paul and I are very fortunate,” Consolmagno writes. “We get to live and work with a group of Jesuit scientists who take both science and faith very seriously. We all work together in the lab, but we also pray together in the chapel. In our daily lives, we don’t feel any particular conflict or tension between science and faith.”
6 questions that are addressed in the book:
How do you reconcile The Big Bang with Genesis?
What happened recently when astronomers debated the status of Pluto as a planet?
Was the Star of Bethlehem just a pious religious story or an actual description of astronomical events?
What really went down between Galileo and the Catholic Church – and why do the effects of that confrontation still reverberate to this day?
Will the Universe come to an end?
And… could you really baptize an extraterrestrial?
About the Authors
BROTHER GUY CONSOLMAGNO, SJ was born in Detroit, Michigan, earned undergraduate and masters’ degrees in Earth and Planetary Sciences from MIT (in 1974 and 1975), and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona in 1978. He worked as a post-doctoral fellow and lecturer at Harvard University’s Department of Astronomy, and MIT’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences; served in the US Peace Corps, teaching physics at the University of Nairobi; and was a physics professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, before entering the Jesuits as a brother in 1989. At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies. In July of 2014, he was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public from the American Astronomical Society.
FATHER PAUL R. MUELLER, SJ is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio. He attended a Jesuit high school and earned a degree in physics at Boston University before entering the Society of Jesus in 1982. As part of his Jesuit training, he earned masters’ degrees in divinity, philosophy, and theology, along the way developing an interest in religion-science issues. After being ordained a priest in 1993, he attended the University of Chicago, where he completed a fourth master’s degree (in physics) and a doctorate in the history and philosophy of science through the interdisciplinary program in Conceptual Historical Studies of Science. He served as professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago from 2004 until 2009.
For more information, visit ImageCatholicBooks.com
To request a review copy or to schedule an interview with Brother Guy Consolmagno or Father Paul Mueller, please contact Katie Moore, publicist, firstname.lastname@example.org, 719-268-1936.