Aliens, demons or PSYOPS? Catholics study, debate UFO allegations
ROME (CNS) -- When former intelligence official David Grusch testified before Congress in July that the U.S. government had retrieved crashed UFOs and covertly attempted to reverse engineer their alien technology, some Catholics already were primed to debate the compatibility of extraterrestrial intelligence and church doctrine.
That is because debate about non-human intelligence is as old as Christianity, according to the director of the Vatican's space observatory.
Whether it is "angels in the Bible or these crazy creatures in Greek mythology," Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno told Catholic News Service in June, there's "nothing new about that."
But claims about UFOs (now often referred to as UAPs or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) and their mysterious pilots are more specific than speculation about life, microbial or otherwise, in some distant galaxy, and it is only natural that revelations like those asserted by Grusch are felt in a "religious register," said Brenda Denzler.
Author of "The Lure of the Edge," which explored the possible impact of UFOs on religious belief, Denzler said that confirmed extraterrestrial life would necessitate "a change, a shift, in some Christian theologies, a widening of perspective."
For example, "the question of Christ's atonement, was it for all sentient beings throughout the universe? Was it just for sinful humans on earth where the fall occurred?" Denzler told CNS.
"There's all kinds of theological muck that would have to be raised and have to be settled again," she said.
Paul Thigpen, author of the 2022 book, "Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Catholic Faith," has discussed UFOs on podcasts that have registered more than 100,000 listens. He has argued that Grusch's claims are credible.
Despite denials from Pentagon officials, Thigpen told CNS, "I believe that what he reported is substantially true."
Thigpen said he wrote his book as a "preemptive move" to reassure Catholics who might be perturbed not just by a potential discovery of life on distant planets, but by UFO whistleblowers who say that highly advanced life is already visiting ours.
"I wanted to be able to put a book out there for folks who are going to be hearing, if that happens, 'This contradicts your faith; this disproves your faith,'" he said.
Thigpen's book compiles statements of prominent Catholics throughout history, from church fathers to St. John Paul II, who have said that God may have created intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The book includes an appendix on UFOs.
He quotes St. Padre Pio, for example, saying that on "other planets, other beings exist who did not sin and fall as we did."
Other Catholics go a step further, saying that both UFO reports and the miraculous stories of saints strengthen their belief in the supernatural realm.
Diana Walsh Pasulka, a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, explained that her research shifted from Marian apparitions and the ecstatic visions of saints to UFOs because she discovered striking similarities between the two phenomena.
Pasulka cited examples of nuns who would see orbs enter their cells and understand them as visiting souls from purgatory, sightings of flying houses and other aerial phenomena from church history.
"The patterns were exact," Pasulka said, "so I took a look at it."
Pasulka gained prominence in UFO circles following the publication of her book, "American Cosmic," which profiles a NASA engineer she believes is connected to the alleged reverse engineering program.
"Tyler," as he is called in the book, joined her in Rome to investigate apparition accounts in the Vatican Archives, and became a Catholic in the process.
"Tyler had as much data as he had about the actual parts of the craft," Pasulka said, "and then he went to the Vatican and was exposed to what's there; now, he converted to Catholicism."
"He changed his view of what this phenomenon is," she said. "That says more than anything right there."
Another Catholic who claims to have seen UFO parts is Harold Puthoff, a Stanford University-trained scientist who studied paranormal technology for the CIA during the Cold War.
"We're talking about actual physical beings and nuts and bolts craft," Puthoff claimed.
Puthoff, who attends St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Austin, Texas, said fellow parishioners ask if he has privileged information about UFOs.
"A lot of my Catholic friends from our local church invested in the To the Stars Academy because they saw I was a part of that," he said, referring to a company he co-founded in 2017 to promote aerospace research, including research into UFOs.
On Sept. 25, the news website Public reported that since Grusch's congressional testimony in July, an additional 30-50 "government employees or contractors" have given testimony to the All-Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), the Department of Defense's office that handles UFO-related claims.
Such claims, when they come from dozens of otherwise respected scientists and intelligence officials, have left many Catholics perplexed.
"It is tricky when people who are highly intelligent and credentialed tell stories that are not typically believed by highly intelligent and well-credentialed people," said Joshua Ambrosius, a social scientist at the University of Dayton. "It's hard to explain."
Catholics' interest in UFOs aligns with Ambrosius' broader observations about their openness to space exploration.
After analyzing Pew Center data, "I did find that Catholics seem to be the most open to the possibility of extraterrestrial life when compared with other Christian traditions," he said, a finding he attributed to the church having learned not to combat scientific findings following the Galileo affair in the 17th century.
But some Catholics are convinced that UFO beliefs clash with Catholic teaching.
Capuchin Father Thomas Weinandy, former member of the Vatican's International Theological Commission and one-time head of the U.S. bishops' office tasked with upholding church teaching, contended that the discovery of rational alien creatures would falsify Christianity.
For instance, Father Weinandy told CNS that church teaching underscores Christ as the ruler of the cosmos in his human form, and that the underlying human-centered narrative of the Bible excludes the possibility of aliens.
"Everything was created through (Jesus), and everything will be summed up in him," Father Weinandy said. "It strikes me that there's no sense of a place for aliens within this understanding of the primacy of Jesus as a man."
If claims like Grusch's were proven, "I think in the end it would negate Christianity," Father Weinandy said. "And I don't think that's possible, obviously."
Daniel O'Connor, author of the forthcoming book "Only Man Bears His Image" and philosophy professor at Hudson Valley Community College in New York, contends that some UFO reports might be the result of psychological operations or have demonic origins.
"In every single case that I've looked at, I can't find a single one that has solid evidence of a phenomena transpiring that a demon couldn't easily replicate," he said.
O'Connor noted that various UFO-related cults, including the Solar Temple and Heaven's Gate, culminated in mass suicide incidents.
Every UFO-related belief system he has examined, he said, "leads to something blatantly dark."
While the Vatican Observatory does not study UFOs, Brother Consolmagno said he's often asked what he thinks about the phenomenon. CNS joined the queue and asked him about Grusch's claims when they first began attracting media attention in June.
Despite high-resolution cellphone cameras being ubiquitous, "we do not have any better evidence of Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster, or UFOs," he said.
"I don't believe."