Vatican Observatory director says Curiosity will expand human knowledge

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VATICAN CITY - Jesuit Father Jose Funes is pleased with the successful landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars, and he thinks "everybody should be happy with the success."

The Argentine Jesuit, director of the Vatican Observatory, said the rover's mission is important: "to see if we can learn a bit more about Mars and the possibility of organic elements on the surface of Mars," which would indicate that some living organism had lived or could live on the planet.

The Curiosity landed on Mars Aug. 5 and is set to explore the planet for two years.

Father Funes told Vatican Radio Aug. 6 that he thinks the rover is perfectly named because curiosity is "a driving force to do science, to do research. Human beings basically are curious and we want to know how many things in the universe work: what is the logic, what are the laws in the universe."

In addition, he said, human beings want to know if life forms exist anywhere else besides Earth.

So far, there is no evidence of a living organism elsewhere, "but still the search for life is worthwhile. We can learn many things, even if we cannot find signs of life," he said.

Asked if the church had anything to fear from the possible discovery of life forms elsewhere, Father Funes said, "Of course not. We are not afraid of science.

"The reason why the Catholic Church has an observatory is because we are not afraid of the truth, whatever the truth might be," he said.

In a 2008 interview with L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Father Funes spoke about the search for life on other planets and what it could mean from the point of view of Christian faith.

Just as God created multiple forms of life on earth, he had said, there may be diverse forms throughout the universe. "This is not in contrast with the faith, because we cannot place limits on the creative freedom of God," he said.

Asked what the existence of alien life forms might imply for the Christian idea of redemption, Father Funes cited the Gospel parable of the shepherd who left his 99 sheep to search for the one that was lost.

"We who belong to the human race could really be that lost sheep, the sinners who need a pastor," he said in the 2008 interview.

"God became man in Jesus in order to save us. So if there are also other intelligent beings, it's not a given that they need redemption. They might have remained in full friendship with their Creator," he said.

While Christ's incarnation and sacrifice was a unique and unrepeatable event, he said he was sure that, if needed, God's mercy would be offered to aliens, as it was to humans.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970