Posted by: dacalu | 26 October 2018

Interstellar Church

I was recently asked to speculate on what the church might look like for an interstellar colony. My friend, Natalia was particularly interested in a colony that was predominantly Roman Catholic. I thought others might be interested in my answers to her questions.  I’d be delighted to hear corrections and/or your own speculations on the subject. (I am not Roman Catholic and apologize if I have in any way misrepresented that church.)


Hi! I’m Natalia and I’m doing research for a book. In the book, refugees from climate-impacted nations are now in off-Earth colonies. My particular book focuses on the refugees from Caribbean nations and certain Israeli folks who decided to join the party. Being off Earth poses a lot of questions but most of these nations have a history of Catholicism that runs deep and wouldn’t be set aside by a silly thing like space-travel.

1. Is the notion of God hearing you, watching you, etc. limited to Earth? Or is God the God of the universe? Does your answer change if it’s Catholicism only?

God created, and rules, Earth and heaven, so I feel comfortable saying that God sees everywhere (is “omniscient”) and has power to act everywhere (is “omnipotent”). It is also common to quote the Bible and say that God cares for the sparrow and the lily, and so cares for all humans, whatever their circumstance. If you have not read The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russel, I can highly recommend them. They are excellent novels and spot on for your topic and questions.

As an aside, God is not a proper name, it is a title and an ontological concept. Capital ‘G’ God refers to an entity that transcends and touches all space and time. It only refers to The God of The Universe. No smaller god would be God. Christians, Jews, and Muslims believe that YHWH (proper name), the god of Israel, is God. Christians additionally believe that Jesus (proper name), the messiah (“Christ”), is God.

2. Most religions teach that they are the “one true” religion,

This is an interesting statement. Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and Baha’i might be more inclined to say that they are each >a< true religion. Christians and Muslims certainly see themselves as belonging to the one true religion, though such a claim can be weaker, for example, among Anglican Christians and Sufi Muslims. They believe they have a unique, likely the best, insight, but are willing to look for aspects of truth in other traditions. So, they would say they are the one truest religion, but truth may be found in other religions as well.

but Catholics also say that the church is the “…continued presence of Jesus on Earth” .

I will make a popular distinction between the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant.  It imperfectly mirrors the more technical official doctrine.  The Church Militant includes members here and now, fighting the good fight. It could also include living Christians in other parts of the universe. The Church Triumphant includes the saints in light, with full knowledge of the glory of God, united with angels in God’s eternal praise.

How do you think the church would reconcile this belief with off-world populations?

Historical continuity with Christ is essential to our branch of the Church Militant. It would still be maintained with pilgrims from Earth. The status of an alien church, without this physical, historical connection, would be problematic, but it is not necessarily impossible.

2.A. If Jesus is the only way through salvation and the church is the only way through Jesus, are off-world colonists doomed to not get saved?

Personally, I would argue that salvation only comes through Jesus, but Jesus does not only come to us through the church. Still, the latter is a common belief, so let’s run with it. Vatican I (a council of the RC Church, 1869-70) was clear that salvation was only possible through the Roman Church. Vatican II (1962-65) had a much broader view, in which the Roman Church is still normative, but other churches participate. Most theologians are unwilling to exclude the possibility that God may save people by other means. So, we make the positive statement that God saves through the church, but not the “exclusive” negative statement that God cannot or will not save through other means.

I see two main possibilities for off-world colonists.

  • All you need is a single baptized Christian travelling from Earth to the colony to provide the colonists with historical, physical continuity.
    1. Two Christians would be even better (Matthew 18:20, Mark 6:7).
    2. Roman Catholic niceties call for three bishops to make the journey. This is the only way to ensure the continuation of all seven sacraments. Confirmation and ordination require a bishop. Consecration of a new bishop requires 3 bishops. If I were to speculate, I think a single bishop or even a single priest would be considered acceptable (if necessary). It has been in the past.
    3. Many Protestants would be satisfied with a Bible making the journey, though even here, the niceties call for baptism by a baptized Christian.
  • Many “astrotheologians” have speculated that God is revealed to intelligent aliens in different ways. (See John 10:16.)
    1. God may have been incarnate in an different body for every world. This interpretation runs afoul of Paul’s claims about cosmic salvation, so it’s not terribly popular. It’s usually referred to as the “little green Jesus” theory.
    2. Jesus may have travelled in the flesh to other worlds after his ascension.
    3. Jesus may have appeared to other worlds in a vision as he appeared to Paul (Acts 9).
    4. God may have spoken to other prophets as he spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who did not meet Jesus until he harrowed Hell, but nonetheless met him after death and followed him to heaven.
    5. The Holy Spirit may move on alien worlds in alien ways, unknown to us.
    6. Angels may spread word of God and Jesus to other worlds (see for example, CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy).

Non-Christian colonists could then learn of God and Jesus from the natives or receive a special revelation of their own.

2.B. Can you receive the 7 sacraments if you aren’t in a church that the Vatican would consider to be “real”? Or is that a sin?

I can’t say.  I can only speak to the validity of the 7 sacraments in our context or in a church mission. God may choose to find another way. I am not aware of one. I believe it would only be sinful if someone intentionally sought a “sacrament” they knew to be counterfeit. Otherwise it would only be ineffective. Some have argued that it would be effective for the participant if they believed it valid, though sinful for the celebrant who knew it was not. (For more, you can read up on Donatism.)

3. Growing up I saw calendars of saints which were very important to our family and how we did things, named kids, planted crops, etc. It’s my understanding that these calendars are used to organize the liturgical year and commemorate Feast Days according to days of the saint’s death. How would this work in a place where time is vastly different from Earth?

A new culture would, no doubt, develop new saints in time, but also keep many of the older saints. This has happened again and again in history. Mary, Joseph, John, Peter, and Paul will always be among the most influential. New saints are continually recognized. England, for example, has George, Cuthbert, Augustine of Canterbury, and Hilda.

3.A. By time is vastly different I mean the year could be shorter (or longer), days could have different lengths (24 hours? Try 30 hours!) etc.

Basically, I don’t believe much would change. If you want to dive into the details of the calendar, you could probably make some predictions.  Holy days drift toward the equinoxes and solstices, the new year, and major harvests.  I wouldn’t wander into it too much without studying the subject for a few years unless you want to annoy the church geeks.

3.B. What about Holy Days? Easter? Lent? Ash Wednesday? Etc.

The dating of Easter and Christmas may well shift to adjust to local seasons.  If there were no clear seasons (as on a space station or tidally locked world), I suspect they would stay as close as possible to the Earth calendar.  If there were seasons, then I think the colonists would adopt “years” corresponding to the planetary orbit or some simple fraction, thereof.  Then there would be one Easter and one Christmas per “year.”  If you come up with details for a world, I’d be happy to think through possible implications, but it’s all very speculative.

4. Would prayers/shrines/etc. to Saints be different on an off-world colony? For example, in Dominican Republic there is a huge Basilica dedicated to our patron saint la Virgen de la Altagracia. Every year people make pilgrimages to the basilica in honor of the Virgen. Would they have to trek back to Earth for the pilgrimage? Could they build another one that’s equally…holy? (I don’t know the right term) in an off-Earth colony?

This depends on population and ease of transit. I suspect Jerusalem and Rome would always be pilgrimage sites, but local ones would arise as well. This, too, has many precedents.  For example, Jerusalem has always been the premier pilgrimage site for Christians, but they made the easier journey to Santiago de Campostella in Spain or the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

If I were imagining a well-established RC colony, I would propose a vision of the Virgin Mary on the new world with some artifact placed in a basilica as a locus for Mary veneration as well as a local patron saint.  They might even found the colony with a patron, perhaps name the starship after her. (Consider the Santa Maria coming to the New World.)

5. Do you think priests and other church leaders would have to return to Earth to get placed in their positions? Could they go to seminary in an off-world planet?

Again, this depends on population and ease of travel. England tried to discourage American independence by keeping bishops at home and requiring colonists to make the journey back for ordination to the priesthood.  This worked, sort of, but the Episcopal Church managed to get a colonist (an English loyalist, Samuel Seabury, incidentally) consecrated bishop in Scotland after the revolution. The Church of England, recognizing that and American Church would happen without them, decided to consecrate two additional bishops and establish a new Anglican church in North America. They were more willing to send bishops to later colonies. I don’t know the story for Catholic New Spain, but it would be easy enough to look up.

6. How do you think the church would handle the Bible? Just kind of a general disclosure “All of this happened on Earth, but it doesn’t impact what you’re learning, just think of it as history and it’s cool.” ß I think this would impact children more than adults. As successive generations are born off-world and are introduced to the religion, do you think they would feel like “This doesn’t really apply to me, this is only an Earth religion”?

Most Christians have never been to Israel.  I don’t see this as a major problem.  One of the benefits of a universal God is that God can be found anywhere. The most important question will be whether the church (as idea, institution, and society) serves the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of the colony.


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