Who Will Be the Bishop of Mars?

Photo of the surface of Mars taken by Opportunity Rover | NASA
Photo of the surface of Mars taken by Opportunity Rover | NASA

by Olivia Colombo


On November 26, NASA’s InSight Mars rover plunged through the thin Martian atmosphere and landed on the rocky, red surface in order to study the inner qualities of the planet, gathering information for the mission to send humans to Mars in the next 15 years.


The InSight rover’s goal, according to NASA, is to “take the planet's vital signs, its pulse, and temperature.” This data collection is one of the phases necessary in working toward the human colonization of Mars, and as people relocate to a new planet, some might ponder how they will observe their religion from across the solar system.  For Catholics, how will they celebrate Mass, and who will be their bishop? Humans need pastoral care, regardless of what planet they might inhabit.


Interestingly enough, in a similar extraterrestrial situation, there already exists a bishop of the Moon. Bishop John Noonan, the bishop of the Diocese of Orlando, is the current bishop of the Moon. The reasoning for his extraterrestrial episcopal responsibility goes back to the spread of Christianity during the Age of Exploration. During the time of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, when explorers stepped foot on new ground, their own bishop initially became bishop of that land until a sustained community of Catholics developed, who then required more pastoral care. At that time, clergy would come to minister to the people in the new land, and eventually a new diocese with its own bishop would be formed. This tradition has continued over the centuries. The 1917 Code of Canon Law explains, “Any newly discovered territory was placed under the jurisdiction of the diocese from which the expedition which discovered that territory left.”


This code was in effect when Apollo 11, with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, made history and landed on the moon July 20, 1969. Since the lunar module left from Cape Canaveral which falls within the thirteen counties of the Diocese of Orlando, the then-bishop of Orlando, Most Reverend William Borders, gained the responsibility of another county: the surface of the moon. Before Pope Paul VI confirmed Bishop Borders’ jurisdiction, this position was initially contested for at a pre-launch banquet, as Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York argued that he was the vicar of the Military Ordinate and thus the Cape Canaveral base fell within his authority, while Archbishop Coleman Carroll of Miami proposed that he should take this responsibility based on the conception that the moon is always directly over Miami. Due to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, Bishop Borders and the Orlando bishops who came after him still continue to be the “bishop of the moon.”


In light of this week’s announcement from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine that the U.S. plans to have “continuous manned presence” on the moon within the next ten years, it is safe to say that the moon will follow the same course as newfound lands centuries ago. The moon currently has a bishop from where the expedition began, and when there is a community in need of a shepherd, there will eventually be priests, and then potentially a new diocese that forms. The impending colonization of Mars begs the same question. Who will be the bishop of Mars? The answer will be found when the launch site of “Mars One,” the first manned-mission, is announced.


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