Why Sci-Fi Has So Many Catholics

Scientists aren’t the only ones who have long been preoccupied with the heavens.

Gianni Giansanti / Corbis

Speaking at Loyola University last month, Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., recently named the director of the Vatican Observatory, was enthused. He was lauding the work of 19th-century Jesuit astronomer Angelo Secchi, particularly the cleric’s contributions to spectroscopy.

“He’s the guy who first asks not ‘Where are the planets and how do they move?’ but ‘What are the planets?’” To which Consolmagno, an avowed sci-fi fan, added, “He’s dear to me because that’s the first question you have to ask before you can turn a planet from a dot of light in the sky to a place—a place where people can have adventures.”

Jesuits have long played an important role in science-fiction stories. For decades, some of speculative fiction’s highest awards have rained down on stories of science and faith, and many of the most famous star the Catholic Church. But for all that mutual interest, the image of the spacefaring Jesuit often seems to reinforce how far mutual understanding still has to go.

This past August, American author Mary Doria Russell announced that Random House is planning a 20th anniversary edition of The Sparrow, the 1996 book that won her the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The plot centers on a certain holy order that decides to send a unilateral mission to an alien world. “The United Nations took years to come to a decision,” the book’s prologue explains, “that the Society of Jesus reached in ten days.”

“Everyone,” Consolmagno wrote for U.S. Catholic this year, “asks me about this novel.”

On several counts, the Jesuits are ideal sci-fi/fantasy protagonists: mystical, adventurous, scientifically inclined. The Society was founded just under five hundred years ago by St. Ignatius of Loyola; thanks to its expeditionary spirit and its founder’s soldiering past, the Jesuits are sometimes called “God’s Marines.” A famous “fourth vow”—above and beyond poverty, chastity, and obedience—commits some of them to “special obedience to the sovereign pontiff” when it comes to missionary work.

In other words, the Jesuits are expected to boldly go, even at great personal risk. As Russell’s Father General muses in The Sparrow, “Jesuits have been hanged, drawn and quartered in London. Disemboweled in Ethiopia. Burned alive by the Iroquois. Poisoned in Germany, crucified in Thailand.”

For the Jesuits, famously, that saving passion also powers a strong scientific tradition. In a 2013 TEDx talk, Consolmagno called himself “living proof that you can be—at the same time—both a fanatic and a nerd. I’m a fanatic about my science, actually, and a bit of a nerd about my church.” It’s a harmony embedded in Jesuit schools around the world; in the turn-based strategy game Civilization 5, “Jesuit Education” is a bonus that lets you spend faith points to set up research facilities. The astronomers at the Observatory are all members of the Society, as were pioneers in everything from botany to germ theory. Even Pope Francis, the first of his order to hold his office, worked briefly as a chemist.

For sci-fi authors, the Jesuits are also useful lead characters because—historically—it’s been possible to believe anything about them, no matter how outlandish. Within and beyond the Catholic Church, Jesuits have always been objects of outsized suspicion. In his essay of the same name, the historian Richard Hofstadter called anti-Jesuit feeling a canonical example of “the paranoid style in American politics.”

A number of tin-hat types say that John F. Kennedy was a Jesuit puppet, the victim of a Jesuit plot, or both. At times, even the papacy eyed Jesuit power warily; in 1773, Pope Clement XIV issued an order that the Society be “extinguished and suppressed.” Of course, they bounced back. But the Jesuits have never quite shaken a reputation for secrecy, mystery, and grand schemes, and so they have a habit of popping up in first-contact stories by non-Catholic writers. It’s a trope that makes good narrative sense: Who has a greater incentive to explore the universe than the universal church? And who would be the tip of the Catholic spear if not the Jesuits?

Or as The Sparrow puts it, “It was predictable, in hindsight. Everything about the history of the Society of Jesus bespoke deft and efficient action, exploration and research.”

The uses to which the motif ends up being put, though, are less flattering than they probably sound at first scan. I reached out to Consolmagno about the return of The Sparrow but caught him as he was about to start a silent retreat. When we spoke earlier this year, though, about his work at the Observatory, he took a dim view of the micro-genre sometimes labeled “Jesuits in Space.”

“An awful lot of it,” he said then, “is that those stories are written by people who don’t have intimate knowledge of scientists in general, and certainly not of Jesuits.” Without my having to name titles, he criticized the classics. “The Arthur Clarke story, ‘The Star,’ you just scratch your head and go, ‘What is he thinking of?’ You look at A Case of Conscience and [its] theology isn’t only bad theology, it’s not Jesuit theology.”

The Sparrow,” he added, “drives me nuts.”

The Church is hardly a monolith; these works also have Catholic fans. Still, the stories could reasonably drive a Jesuit scientist nuts. Take The Sparrow. It follows Father Emilio Sandoz, S.J., riding an asteroid toward a world first noticed from Earth because of its beautiful, musical broadcasts. For Sandoz, the discovery suggests a divine hand at work. His superiors agree. The Father General asks his secretary, “Have you noticed, Peter, that all the music that sounds most similar to the extraterrestrial music is sacred in nature?”

But Russell seems less optimistic. Chapters jump between the mission and its aftermath, which leaves Sandoz with flayed hands, scurvy, and a crisis of faith. He’s maimed and abused by the creatures he traveled to meet. Their songs are acoustic pornography, graphic ballads about sex and sexual assault; Sandoz, to his horror, ends up featuring in some of them. Ranting about the improbable chain of events that led him to that point, he fumes, “It was either blind, dumb, stupid luck from start to finish, in which case, we are all in the wrong business, gentlemen, or it was a God I cannot worship.”

The narrator of Clarke’s “The Star,” which won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1956, fares better. He doesn’t fare well. His discovery is a race wiped out by a supernova, seen from Earth as a star over Bethlehem. The black irony is a bit much for the Jesuit astrophysicist: “There comes a point when even the deepest faith must falter, and now, as I look at the calculations lying before me, I know I have reached that point at last.”

Of the three works, A Case of Conscience might be the most theologically grim. James Blish’s 1958 Hugo-Award-winning novel takes place on a paradise planet, Lithia, inhabited by a species unfamiliar with either evil or religion. In fact, to the Jesuit biologist Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez, the entire world seems carefully constructed to put the lie to the Catholic tradition. On Lithia, good exists without any trace of God. On Lithia, alien reproductive cycles recreate macroevolution in miniature. Blish frames the experience as a sharp challenge to Ruiz-Sanchez’s faith. “The whole of Lithia,” he thinks, “and in particular the whole of the dominant, rational, entirely admirable race of Lithians, had been created by Evil, out of Its need to confront men with a new, specifically intellectual seduction.”

In other words, it’s a spiritual trap, and the bait is scientific curiosity. That cruel cooption of the urge to explore shakes Ruiz-Sanchez to his core. He ultimately destroys the alien world—possibly; it’s a bit hazy—in a massive exorcism.

Generally, sci-fi’s curious Jesuits don’t get to enjoy happy endings. They’re there for the disillusioning; set ‘em up, knock ‘em down, and make sure to aim for the faith. At times, these stories seem like fantasies of degradation, part of a longstanding tradition of wishing bad things on Jesuits. “If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell,” President John Adams once wrote, “it is this society of Loyola’s.”

But to frame it more charitably, these stories are determined to mine a dramatic “tension”—modernity vs. ancient rite, Catholicism vs. futurism—that doesn’t much seem to pain the Society of Jesus. I imagine some at the Vatican Observatory, dealing with suggestions that science and faith conflict, empathize with Clarke’s narrator: “It was, I think, the apparent incongruity of my position that caused the most amusement among the crew. In vain I pointed to my three papers in the Astrophysical Journal, my five in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.” Of course, sci-fi gave Clarke room—as it did Russell and Blish—to strain that confidence to an imagined breaking point. However sanguine the Jesuits are now, the narrative goes, in some future their position will become untenable, or at least deeply uncomfortable.

But for now it’s difficult to gainsay the Church’s attitude on science and spirit, which depending on your perspective is either a beautiful koan or an infuriating tautology. “Truth cannot contradict truth,” Pope John Paul II said in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the same year The Sparrow was published.

He was quoting his predecessor, Pope Leo XIII, who wrote the same in Providentissimus Deus in 1893. Leo had reestablished the Vatican Observatory two years prior.

Whatever the future might hold, today the Vatican’s astronomical interests are keen. Consolmagno cites science and science fiction as sources of great joy, including spiritual joy, in keeping with a core principle of Jesuit spirituality: Find God in all things. As one of Blish’s characters observes, Jesuit faith “seemed to be a constant source of great intellectual excitement.”

And in fact, polling data suggest that that astronomical enthusiasm is broadly shared by lay Catholics. In a study published in the May issue of Space Policy, the professor Joshua Ambrosius of the University of Dayton (a Marianist school, for what it’s worth) broke down the influence of religious affiliation on space-policy opinions. While the effect was very modest, American Catholics were actually more optimistic than other Christians—more optimistic than any population but the unaffiliated—that humanity will discover extraterrestrial life in the next 40 years. They also distinguished themselves on a measure Ambrosius calls “space nationalism,” more likely than any other demographic to say that it is “essential that the United States continue to be a world leader in space exploration.”

Ambrosius credits both novelists and Jesuits, whatever their disagreements, with enlarging the Catholic vision of the heavens. “The Church will be ready and willing to expand its scope,” he suggested to me, “understanding that, just like humans in general, its survival as an institution will one day depend on this migration beyond the Earth.”

It’s hard to know whether to bet on the survival of one of our more ancient traditions, especially in a future that starts to loom science-fictional. Its enthusiasms, though, have already weathered other revolutions. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “A thing as old as the Catholic Church has an accumulated armory and treasury to choose from; it can pick and choose among the centuries and brings one age to the rescue of another.” Would it be such a shock to learn that the Holy See has ideas about the 22nd, 23rd, 24th, and so on?

There’s one diabolical, Jesuitical intrigue to which Consolmagno will already admit. “The demotion of Pluto was a Vatican plot,” he said at Loyola. “And I’d do it again.”