A Mayan prophecy that the world will end this week may have the more credulous stocking up on supplies and fleeing to "sacred" mountains in the hope of miraculous last-minute salvation by aliens.
But while the idea that Earth could be shattered into a billion pieces by some sort of interplanetary cataclysm has worried millions of people around the world, the Holy See's chief astronomer suggests that life as we know it is unlikely to come to an end quite so soon.
In an editorial in the Vatican's official daily newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano – in an issue whose front-page article was entitled “The end is not nigh – at least for now” – Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, the director of the Vatican Observatory, criticized "pseudo-prophecies" about the end of the Universe.
“In the media and on the internet there is a great deal of talk of the end of the world, which the Mayan calendar supposedly predicted for Dec 21. If you do a search on Google, you get 40 million results on the topic,” wrote Father Funes, a Jesuit priest from Argentina.
A 5,125-year cycle known in the Mayan calendar as the Long Count comes to an end on Friday and has been widely interpreted by cultists, New Age disciples, and believers in the esoteric as heralding the destruction of the planet.
But in a lengthy discourse on astronomy and Christian belief, he said it was “not even worth discussing the scientific basis of these claims."
He acknowledged that the universe was slowly expanding, but that the destruction of the Earth – if it ever happens – will not occur for billions of years.
In any case, he said, Christians subscribe to the “fundamental conviction that death is not the last word.”
Four hundred years after the Roman Catholic Church put Galileo on trial for heresy based on his belief that the Earth revolved around the Sun and not the other way round, the Vatican is rather more forgiving of the science of astronomy.
Its observatory is at Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the pope, which lies in the hills outside Rome. One of the oldest astronomical research institutes in the world, it also has a research facility hosted by the Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Funes, who has a master’s degree in astronomy from the National University of Cordoba in Argentina as well as degrees in philosophy and theology, was made director of the observatory in 2006.
He has not been reluctant to take modern science into account when considering religious tenets. In an interview in 2008, he said it was possible that intelligent forms of life could exist on other planets in the solar system.
Aliens would still be God’s creatures, he said, in an article in L’Osservatore Romano headlined "The extraterrestrial is my brother." The notion did not necessarily contradict the teachings of the Catholic Church, he said, arguing that to dismiss the possibility of alien life would be to underestimate God’s creative powers.