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Word that the Vatican has declared devout Catholics free to believe in aliens has traveled at warp speed around the globe and, quite possibly, to points unknown.

The Roman Catholic Church never has been considered anti-alien. In fact, Catholic priests and scholars have written about the issue of extraterrestrial life since at least the Middle Ages. What made last week's statement significant, several experts say, is that the comments by the Rev. Jose Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory, were printed in the Vatican's own newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano. That gave his words a certain papal heft.

It has also made for some lively discussions between liberal and conservative theologians. The Rev. Christopher Corbally, vice director of the Vatican Observatory, said he has been bombarded with e-mail from colleagues pondering whether God could have created more than one world and whether other beings could be granted redemption via a Christlike savior.

If God created human beings in his own image, how could there be others who don't look like us? Little green men, Corbally noted, certainly do not fit the popular image of God.

''It's a fun way to catch people's imagination,'' he said. ''How wonderful it would be to have other life beyond our own world, because it would show how God's creation just flows out without abandon.

''We are always trying to restrict God's creativity, putting theological difficulties in the way. But I don't think God bothers with theological difficulties.''

Human beings, on the other hand, have a tendency to be a bit literal when interpreting the teachings of their faiths. Many a faithful soul today would be aghast at talk of UFOs and other forms of intelligent life.

''Any kind of literalist in Christianity would be barring these sorts of beliefs,'' said Thomas O'Brien, a professor at DePaul University. ''If you were to go to some fundamentalist Christian churches, you'd hear some pastors say belief in UFOs is tantamount to a nonbelief in Jesus Christ.''

Such pooh-poohing of cosmic possibilities runs quite counter to comments from the Vatican Observatory. Funes said that to not believe life exists beyond our planet would be to ''set limits on the creative liberty of God.''

So what's next? A canonical embrace of ghosts, psychic powers and fairies?

Turns out that's not necessary.

''There are no problems with ghosts and the paranormal because a lot of the personages that populate the cosmic world of Catholicism are precisely those kinds of figures,'' O'Brien said. ''So there's nothing against that kind of belief.''

In fact, O'Brien and other experts agree that the Catholic faith and many others are based not on things a person can't believe in, but on the things a person must believe in.