The unshrinking defence of the Holy Scripture, however, does not require that we should equally uphold all the opinions which each of the Fathers or the more recent interpreters have put forth in explaining it; for it may be that, in commenting on passages where physical matters occur, they have sometimes expressed the ideas of their own times, and thus made statements which in these days have been abandoned as incorrect (Pope Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus §19)
[T]here are but few texts whose sense has been defined by the authority of the Church, nor are those more numerous about which the teaching of the Holy Fathers is unanimous (Pope Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu §47)
It is the divine origin of a particular doctrine that makes the doctrine a requirement of belief for salvation, not the majority or common opinion of the Fathers, the medievals or theologians and prelates of today (Bob Sungenis, The Epistles of Romans and James, p. 440).
In this installment of my series on the new geocentrism, I’ll tackle what is now the “last hurrah” of the new geocentrists with respect to the teaching of the Catholic Church, namely, their repeated claim that the Fathers of the Church are in unanimous consent on geocentrism and that Catholics are therefore required to believe it.
All their other appeals to ecclesiastical authority have been debunked in prior pieces. I’ve demonstrated that the Roman Catechism, which Sungenis called, “One of the clearest official and authoritative statements from the Catholic Church defending the doctrine of geocentrism”, says absolutely nothing about geocentrism or any other specific system of cosmology and that geocentrists claims are based on mistranslation and obvious misinterpretation (“Geocentrist Exaggerations: The Catechism of Trent” and “Sungenis and “johnmartin” Studiously Miss the Point”.)
I’ve shown that the 1616 decree of the Congregation of the Index banning Copernican works was not and could not be a binding doctrinal definition for the universal Church. It has been duly and lawfully abrogated by the Magisterium through the removal of all Copernican works from the Index. Thus, it’s no longer of any consequence to Catholics (“Geocentrism and Strict Canonical Interpretation”).
I’ve also demonstrated that the 1633 decree against Galileo, when interpreted strictly according to the Catholic Church’s perennial rules of canonical interpretation, pertains only to a strict Copernicanism taken as a unity, a single doctrine consisting of two facets: an immobile sun at the center of the universe and a mobile earth which is not the center. In regard to the canonical decree, it’s incorrect to separate these two facets out and deal with them independently, in isolation, as the geocentrists commonly do. The fact is, such a strict Copernicanism is held by nobody and never will be again; therefore, this decree is at most an ecclesiastical dead letter and no Catholic falls under its strictures (“Geocentrism and Strict Canonical Interpretation”).
I’ve debunked the oft-repeated canard that the only way that the Catholic Church can “clear the books”, as it were, from the Galileo ruling is by holding another formal canonical trial (“Geocentrism and the Canonical Trial Canard”.)
I’ve shown that the geocentrists exaggerate to the point of falsehood in their treatment of Pope Alexander VII’s bull Speculatores Domus Israel and its relationship to geocentrism (“Geocentrist Double Standards and Exaggerations on Magisterial Documents”.)
And in general, I’ve demonstrated that the geocentrists habitually grasp at straws as they bring forward even various non-magisterial examples since the time of Galileo—the priest-editors of an edition of Newton’s Principia, an address by the lay head of the Pontifical Academy of Science, etc.—to try to prove that the Church “officially” holds to geocentrism today (“Pay No Attention to the Geocentrist Behind the Curtain” and “The New Geocentrists Come Unraveled”.)
In short, I’ve demonstrated that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church does not now and never did put forward geocentrism as a matter of faith. In stark contrast to the tabloid-like story being sold by the geocentrists in books and on video, I’ve no need of recourse to dark conspiracy theories, allegations of subterfuge, or ecclesiastical malfeasance. I simply demonstrate what was done in good order, according to the Catholic Church’s own perennial rules of canonical interpretation. Admittedly, this is far less titillating and marketable than the story the geocentrists are selling. But it happens to be the truth.
What is left for the geocentrist case then? The only ground on which the geocentrists can continue to assert that there’s some Catholic authority requiring Catholics to believe in geocentrism is their repeated claim that the Fathers of the Church are in unanimous consent in regard to geocentrism as a matter of faith. They base this claim on their interpretation of the teaching of the Council of Trent, Vatican I, and Pope Leo XIII:
John Salza: In other words, when the Fathers are unanimous about an interpretation of Scripture, their understanding comes from the Sacred Deposit of Faith handed down by Christ and the Apostles. The Fathers unanimously interpreted the Scriptures to support a geocentric cosmology. According to Trent and Vatican I (two dogmatic ecumenical councils of the Catholic Church), we are not permitted to depart from their interpretation of the Scriptures, because their interpretation is deemed to have come from the Apostles. Those who reject geocentrism must explain why they do not submit to this rule of biblical interpretation set forth by two infallible councils. (http://www.scripturecatholic.com/geocentrism.html)
“John Martin”: The church fathers taught authoritatively on faith and morals when they had unanimous consent. As the fathers had unanimous consent on the matter of a stationary earth, then the stationary earth is a matter of faith. The fathers did not have to cite scripture to establish their cause, for as specified by Pope Leo XIII, only unanimous consent is required and nothing more.
Rick DeLano: It is certainly arguable that this doctrine in fact constitutes just what St. Bellarmine says it does- a unanimous (and hence irreformable) consensus of the Fathers concerning the true interpretation of Sacred Scripture (“Why Geocentrism is Back and Why It Matters: A Response to David Palm”, p. 6).
Bob Sungenis: As far as the Church was concerned, there were two choices – either the Earth moved or it did not. It made no difference to Paul V, Urban VIII, or even Benedict XIV who kept Copernicus, et al., on the Index in 1758, whether it was Galileo’s model, Kepler’s model, Newton’s model or anyone else’s. All of them were rejected and/or condemned because they made the Earth move, contrary to the literal reading of Scripture and the interpretation of it according to the unanimous consensus of the Church Fathers (GWW2, p. 249).
In this essay, I’ll examine and debunk this final ecclesiastical claim of the new geocentrists in order to once and for all relegate their private dogma exclusively the field of science, where it belonged all along. Then, in a future installment, I’ll demonstrate the extent to which, from a scientific standpoint, geocentrism is nothing more than an elaborate exercise in special pleading.
Adoption of the hermeneutical principles of St. Augustine and St. Thomas (and Galileo) by Leo XIII
Action upon these principles by Pope St. Pius X
Reiteration of these principles by Pope Pius XII
Answering the Geocentrist Replies
At the very start of this study we need to get one thing completely straight. The Magisterium of the Catholic Church has never said that the Fathers are unanimous on the matter of geocentrism. The geocentrists have no magisterial support for their view. Period. Let’s recall again the words of Pope Pius XII:
Thus, given what Pius XII says, the burden of proof is entirely on the geocentrists to demonstrate any alleged unanimity – a burden which they have failed to meet, to say the least.
But the decision to omit any reference to the Fathers is perfectly in keeping with the Church’s canonical principle, In obscuris minimum est sequendum—“in obscure matters it is better to make the minimum decision”. In fact, as I’ve argued in detail in “Geocentrism and Strict Canonical Interpretation” the Catholic Church has handled this matter in line with her own long-stated principles.
To return again to the topic at hand, the actions of the Magisterium at the time of the Galileo affair, and even more so in the time since then, demonstrate that no such binding consensus of the Fathers exists with respect to geocentrism. There’s only one ecclesiastical document that says anything about the Fathers of the Church in connection with geocentrism – a report delivered to the Holy Office in 1616 by a group of theologians who were commissioned to look into the matter of Copernicanism. While the pope and the Holy Office did act upon the contents of this document by sending Cardinal Bellarmine to deliver to Galileo a “gentle admonishment” (the phrase used by the Holy Office) not to teach Copernicanism anymore, it was never officially approved, either by the Pope or the Holy Office itself. It was never promulgated. It was merely advisory, not magisterial. Here’s that opinion written by the theological qualifiers:
Proposition to be assessed: (1) The sun is the center of the world and completely devoid of local motion.
Assessment: All said that this proposition is foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts many places the sense of Holy Scripture, according to the literal meaning of the words and according to the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology.
(2) The earth is not the center of the world, nor motionless, but it moves as a whole and also with diurnal motion.
Assessment: All said that this proposition receives the same judgment in philosophy and that in regard to theological truth it is at least erroneous in faith.
In this report, only the proposition dealing with an immobile sun at the center of the universe is said to contradict “the literal meaning” of Scripture and “the common interpretation and understanding of the Holy Fathers and the doctors of theology”. We’ll return to that point in a moment.
But now, please notice the most interesting thing of all. The Congregation of the Index, acting just a couple of weeks after this report was received, had this to say about the matter:
Notice that this decree addresses specifically “the false Pythagorean doctrine” (singular), which includes two facets: a motionless sun at the center of the universe and a mobile earth. So as I argued in detail in “Geocentrism and Strict Canonical Interpretation”, taking this decree strictly according to the Catholic Church’s perennial canonical norms, it could apply only to Copernicanism as a unity, a single doctrine. One may not legitimately apply either facet of this doctrine by itself, in isolation, as the geocentrists do.
But more to our present point, notice what’s missing. There is no mention here of a literal interpretation of Scripture or of the testimony of the Fathers of the Church. Now, even the geocentrists have to admit that the Index was revised by the competent authority to remove the Copernican works and eventually the Index was done away with entirely. So, clearly this decree doesn’t bind Catholics any longer. But, more importantly for our present point, this decree says nothing about any consensus of the Fathers in support of its anti-Copernican stance. That clause in the consultants’ report was intentionally removed before this decree was issued.
Now, let’s fast-forward to 1633 and the trial of Galileo. In the decree issued from the Holy Office condemning Galileo, the 1616 report of the theological qualifiers is cited as part of an historical narrative of the events that led up to the present trial. I’ve demonstrated in “Geocentrism and Strict Canonical Interpretation” that this report was cited but was not in all respects adopted in the 1633 decree. But for our present purposes, let’s see how it was cited in 1633:
[T]he two propositions of the stability of the Sun and the motion of the Earth were by the theological Qualifiers qualified as follows: The proposition that the Sun is the center of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture.
The proposition that the Earth is not the center of the world and immovable but that it moves, and also with a diurnal motion, is equally absurd and false philosophically and theologically considered at least erroneous in faith.
Notice anything? Do you see any mention there of a literal interpretation of Scripture or anything about the testimony of the Fathers of the Church? I don’t. The reason is that for a second time any mention of these things was intentionally removed from the 1616 consultants’ report when cited in an official decree.
There aren’t any other magisterial documents that directly address the issue of geocentrism [the Index Librorum Prohibitorum issued by Alexander VII in 1664 does nothing for the geocentrists. The 1616 decree from the Index is reproduced, again with no mention of the Fathers, not for some express purpose of reemphasizing geocentrism but along with dozens and dozens of other decrees for the stated purpose that “the case history of each censured book will be made known” (see here, pp. 307f. See also my article "Geocentric Double Standards and Exaggerations on Magisterial Documents.")
Twice the Magisterium drew upon the 1616 report of the theological qualifiers. And twice any mention of the Fathers of the Church was intentionally edited out. The neo-geos need to face this fact: whatever persons drafted the 1616 decree of the Index and the 1633 decree of the Holy Office had the text of the 1616 consultants’ report in front of them and purposely took out all mention of the Fathers of the Church. And this took place during the Galileo affair itself, the very time which, according to the geocentrists, the Magisterium should have used this alleged unanimous consent of the Fathers as the clinching argument to silence the Copernicans forever and cement geocentrism as a dogma of the Church. Instead, they twice removed any reference to the Fathers. Yet, the geocentrists have conveniently skipped right over this important fact.
Geocentrist Rick DeLano has issued this challenge to me:
Now that I've demonstrated conclusively that the Magisterium has never stated that the Fathers are in consensus on geocentrism, one can imagine the geocentrists trying to salvage their “case” by insisting that it could still happen at some future date. But the problem with such an argument is that during the actual Galileo affair, the Congregations of the Index and the Holy Office had precisely this opportunity and twice chose instead to intentionally exclude any mention of the testimony of the Fathers. As such, any appeal to a possible future action including the testimony of the Fathers is a mere pipe-dream.
So that’s it. Even in the non-magisterial consultants’ report of 1616, it’s only in connection with the proposition concerning the sun’s motion that the Fathers are mentioned. With respect to the earth’s immobility—which Sungenis calls the real key to this whole matter—there’s no mention of the Fathers at all. And in actual magisterial documents, even the reference to the Fathers with respect to an immobile sun at the center of the universe was removed.
The Magisterium of the Church has never promulgated any document claiming patristic support for geocentrism. Period. Quite the contrary—the two times when it would have been most effective to say so, if the Fathers really were unanimous on geocentrism as a matter of faith, the Magisterium purposely suppressed any mention of the Fathers.
Now, let’s take a look at just why this might have been done. It turns out that there are some fairly obvious reasons.
So what do we have before us? We have no magisterial documents whatsoever that speak of a testimony of the Fathers with respect to geocentrism. We do have one consultants’ report, but this speaks of the Fathers’ testimony exclusively with regard to an immobile sun at the center of the universe. I suppose that if the geocentrists really want to contend that the Fathers are in unanimous consensus that the sun is not immobile and does not occupy the very center of the universe then maybe we should just leave them to their “victory”. But, of course, nobody even holds that that view and never will again; so the geocentrists stand to gain a Pyrrhic victory at best.
But Sungenis has repeated over and over again that it’s actually the mobility of the earth that’s the key to this whole matter:
These assertions are long on confidence but woefully short on evidence. Just what magisterial documents do we have that affirm the consensus of the Fathers on an immobile earth? None. In fact, what evidence do we even have in the private consultants’ report of 1616 concerning the testimony of the Fathers with respect to the mobility of the earth? Not one word.
Since they can have absolutely no appeal to any ecclesiastical authority whatsoever in support of such a claim, they would have to establish the claim on its merits, by virtue of the evidence. The burden of proof is completely on them. Now, let’s have a look at that evidence.
J. M. Lewis noticed something that I also observed in reading the various patristic quotes alleged to establish a patristic consensus on geocentrism. With regard to the original 1616 consultation by the theologians of the Holy Office he states:
Despite the fact that none of the eleven [theological experts] had had any training in astronomy, the panel condemned Copernicanism within one week of its first sitting. The eleven would no doubt have consulted the Fathers of the Church and modern commentators and would have found nothing in them about the motion of the Earth – but they would have found nothing which denied it either (Galileo in France: French Reactions to the Theories and Trial of Galileo, p. 45).
This can be confirmed by reading the various witnesses brought forth even in the geocentrist book Galileo Was Wrong (GWW). The claim there is that this book represents a comprehensive presentation of the patristic evidence for geocentrism and that “those quotes from the Fathers which have the most logical and comparative relevance have been listed” (GWW2, p. 88). Since it was compiled by an interested party, I will take this body of evidence as normative. If any other pertinent witnesses that are not presented in GWW2 are brought forward in the future, I’ll be happy to evaluate them.
What has struck me in looking into this particular topic is just how consistently, among the Church Fathers and the medieval theologians, these matters of cosmology were treated as matters of natural philosophy and not as matters of faith. For example, surveying the patristic quotations presented in GWW2, how many give any support to a central, immovable earth (geostationism) based on a scriptural citation, an actual appeal to the Bible? Unless I am missing some—which is possible, I’m open to correction—I see two: one from Athenagoras and one allegedly from Clement of Rome. I say allegedly because, although Sungenis presents it as from St. Clement, it is actually from one of the Clementine Homilies which are universally acknowledged not to emanate from St. Clement of Rome (Sungenis does not alert the reader to this fact). So from Sungenis’ evidence only one Father actually cites sacred Scripture on the matter of a centralized earth.
The quote from Athenagoras is as follows: “To Him is for us to know who stretched out and vaulted the heavens, and fixed the earth in its place like a centre” (link). Notice that this is simply a bare citation from the poetic Psalms. It’s not a patristic exposition supporting geostationism per se and from the context it’s clear that St. Athenagoras is simply making an appeal to the creative power of God generally, not making a statement about specific cosmological details.
Eight other patristic witnesses do speak, in various astrological/quasi-philosophical/quasi-scientific terms, of earth at the center of things. These are Sts. Anatolius of Alexandria, Basil, Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Thaumaturgos, Hippolytus, and Methodius. But in none of these instances do the witnesses cite Scripture, say or even imply that they are passing on a sacred Tradition, or indicate that their view is divinely revealed by God. They express these views of the centrality of the earth as matters of natural philosophy, not divine revelation.
Now these relatively few witnesses (ten, by my count, although “pseudo-Clement” does not count as a Father of the Church) certainly do not represent any “unanimous consent of the Fathers”. And notice that the vast majority even of these don’t cite Scripture or Tradition in support of geostationism. What or whom do they cite? St. Basil speaks generally of “inquirers into nature who with a great display of words give reasons for the immobility of the earth”; notice that he makes this a matter of natural science, not a theological point. And Methodius speaks of the “Chaldeans and Egyptians” and also of the mathematicians of the Greeks.
Similarly, Sungenis cites Anatolius of Alexandria, who himself cites the Greek philosophers Eudemus, Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes with regard to various cosmological views:
Sungenis has miscited this work; it does not come from The Pascal Canon, as he says, but from Fragments of the Books on Arithmetic, which is a strong indication that St. Anatolius views these as matters of natural philosophy and not doctrine. And again, there’s no indication in this text that St. Anatolius is opposing the views he cites. Quite the contrary, if you read the whole section it’s all very laudatory of the Greek mathematicians. St. Anatolius asserts that the mathematician Anaximander actually “discovered” that the earth “moves round the axis of the universe”. Sungenis cannot simply assume that St. Anatolius opposes this view—he would have to prove it and from what I can see that’s not possible. At the very least, it strongly suggests that for St. Anatolius and St. Hippolytus, the earth’s motion is a matter of natural philosophy and not a matter of faith.
It will not do for geocentrists to take various passages in which the Fathers speak of a mobile sun and assume from those that it demonstrates an immobile earth. As I’ve already demonstrated above, there is no necessary, logical connection between a mobile sun and an immobile earth. Even if a given Father believes (as many of them did) that the sun moves around the earth, this does not in any way demonstrate that the earth itself is immobile. Both bodies could be moving (as they in fact are.)
To summarize, in the quotes provided by Sungenis himself, only one Father explicitly cites Scripture on geostationism—if that is actually what he’s doing, which isn’t even clear from that single passage—and this is the only patristic passage Sungenis has brought forth that makes any theological connection at all. As for the other Fathers he references who seem explicitly to support geostationism, they cite the Greeks and other pagans as their authorities. The evidence certainly strongly supports that the Fathers did not see the immobility of the earth as a matter of faith but as a matter of natural philosophy.
It’s no wonder, then, that even the consultants to the Holy Office in 1616 didn’t say anything about the Fathers with regard to the immobility of the earth. And yet the immobility of the earth is the very point that Sungenis insists is the most important aspect of this entire controversy. The geocentrist claim that their system is supported by a “unanimous consent” of the Fathers is completely undermined when one actually examines the Fathers.
As we’ve already stated, the modern geocentrist faces a fundamental obstacle in trying to make the case that a unanimous consent of the Fathers binds Catholics to a belief in geocentrism. The fact is that none of the various patristic witnesses explicitly present this as a matter that has been directly revealed by God.
No one questions that the Fathers were in fact geocentrists. This shouldn’t surprise anyone because geocentrism was the best science of their day and accorded best with the observations that men were able to make at that time. But it’s unjustifiable to insist that because the Fathers held to a geocentric cosmology—again, the best science of their day within the limits of their observational abilities—that they therefore held it as a matter of divine faith. That would have to be proven, not merely asserted.
In fact, none of the Fathers, when speaking of cosmological matters, say they are passing on a matter revealed by God. None of the Fathers indicate in any way that they are passing on a Tradition from the Apostles. As we have already seen above, the evidence indicates that this is for them a matter of natural philosophy and not a matter of faith.
Numerous Catholic theologians affirm that for the combined witness of the Fathers to be normative and binding, they must be addressing a matter of revealed truth, that is, a matter of faith and morals. In doing so, they are being faithful to the teaching of the Council of Trent, Vatican I, and Pope Leo XIII on the binding nature of a consensus of the Fathers:
[N]o one, relying on his own skill, shall,—in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine . . . interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary . . . to the unanimous consent of the Fathers . . . (Council of Trent, Session IV; emphasis mine.)
[W]e renew that decree and declare its meaning to be as follows: that in matters of faith and morals, belonging as they do to the establishing of Christian doctrine, that meaning of Holy Scripture must be held to be the true one, which Holy mother Church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true meaning and interpretation of Holy Scripture. In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers (First Vatican Council, Session III; emphasis mine.)
the Holy Fathers, We say, are of supreme authority, whenever they all interpret in one and the same manner any text of the Bible, as pertaining to the doctrine of faith or morals; (Leo XIII, Providentissimus Deus §14; emphasis mine).
Note that that Pope Leo XIII adds the phrase “as pertaining to the doctrine of faith and morals” to modify “any text of the Bible”, demonstrating that not every text of the Bible does in fact pertain to faith and morals. All Scripture is inspired and inerrant, certainly, and all of it exists for our edification and instruction. But not every passage of Scripture pertains to a matter of faith or morals. One thinks of stretches of history, genealogies, or the personal salutations and instructions contained in various epistles as examples where the words of Scripture, while certainly still inspired, do not pertain to a matter of faith and morals. Pope Leo XIII states further on in Providentissimus Deus that we need not heed every opinion of the Fathers, but only those they put forward as matters of faith:
Theologian Fr. William Most draws this out this succinctly:
To prove a doctrine from the Fathers, it is necessary to find them morally unanimous, and speaking as witnesses of revelation (“Grace, Predestination and the Salvific Will of God: New Answers to Old Questions”, P.200; emphasis mine.)
Fr. R. C. Fuller lays this out in more detail:
When the Fathers interpret a text pertaining to faith and morals in one and the same way they are of the highest authority ‘because their unanimity clearly shows that such an interpretation has come down from the Apostles as a matter of Catholic Faith’, PD, EB 96, Dz 1944. Moral unanimity is sufficient, i.e., if a good number of Fathers in widely different parts of the Church, or of different ages agree on a point and no Father contradicts their teaching. Again the view must be given as certain and not as merely possible or probable. Lastly the doctrine must be put forward as revealed truth. Evidently these conditions are not often fulfilled simultaneously. The number of texts determined by the consent of the Fathers is even smaller than that of the texts determined by the decrees of the Church. We cite a few examples: the virginal conception of Christ, Is 7:14; the Passion of Christ, Is 53; existence of Purgatory, 2 Mac 12:43 . . .
In matters other than those of faith and morals the Fathers have no special authority and their views are to be judged in light of their arguments. Even if they all held, for example, that the world was made in six days of twenty-four hours we would not be bound to accept that view under authority because it is not a matter of faith and morals (“Interpretation of Holy Scripture”, in A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, p. 60; emphasis mine.)
Lest anyone claim that Fr. Fuller’s example of the six days of creation is merely his own opinion, consider that the Magisterium under Pope St. Pius X explicitly allowed for non-literal interpretations of the days of creation. This is highly significant since the new geocentrists—Sungenis, DeLano, Salza, et al.—also claim that belief in creation in six literal, twenty-four hour days is itself a matter binding on all Catholics by virtue of an alleged unanimous consent of the Fathers (see e.g. GWW2, pp. 98ff. and http://www.scripturecatholic.com/evolution.html). I’ll lay this out in more detail below.
Another Catholic theologian, Fr. Jerome Langford, reinforces this distinction concerning the unanimous witness of the Fathers pertaining only to matters of faith and morals:
Thus for a scriptural interpretation of the Fathers to unquestionable validity, two requirements had to be met. First, all who wrote on a text had to explain it in the same way. This “unanimous consent” of the Fathers meant that there must be a moral unanimity. If many of the great Fathers interpreted it in one way and no other Church Father contradicted them, the exegesis could be accepted as the universal interpretation of the Fathers. Secondly, the Fathers had to affirm, explicitly or implicitly, that the text under consideration pertained to a matter of faith or morals. Therefore, if there was not a unanimous consent or if the interpretation was not proposed as a certain doctrine pertaining to faith or morals, but merely as an opinion or conjecture, it did not necessarily have to be followed. (Langford, Galileo, Science, and the Church, 3rd ed. pp. 62f.; emphasis mine.)
There’s one other witness worth hearing on the matter—not a Catholic theologian, to be sure, but certainly an interested party. It turns out that Sungenis himself agrees with these standards. In a different context—namely, when he’s trying to downplay the testimony of the Fathers concerning positive divine promises to the Jewish people—he agrees that not everything held by the Fathers, even by a majority of the Fathers, is by that fact de fide, a matter of faith. He insists, in line with Catholic theologians, that it is necessary for the matter to be of divine origin for the unanimity of the Fathers to be binding and normative:
It is the divine origin of a particular doctrine that makes the doctrine a requirement of belief for salvation, not the majority or common opinion of the Fathers, the medievals or theologians and prelates of today” (The Epistles of Romans and James, p. 440).
. . . no Catholic is under any compulsion whatsoever to abide by whatever was predicted about Israel among even a majority of patristic writers … even if the Fathers are in consensus on a given topic, we are still permitted to add information that has been gleaned from fresh studies of Scripture” (“Never Revoked”, p. 12).
He says elsewhere,
[N]ot one of the witnesses ever provide exegesis of the passages, nor cited early patristic support for their interpretation, nor showed that the apostolic tradition demanded their interpretation. (“Intense Dialogue on Romans 11″).
And the fact is, as Fr. Langford so rightly says,
Not one Father can be found who declares that the motion of the heavens or the immobility of the earth pertains to faith or morals. St. Augustine explicitly teaches that it most certainly does not (Galileo, Science, and the Church, p. 63.)
As early as 2007 I stated that, “if we applied all of Sungenis‘s criteria that he uses to dismiss the testimony of the Fathers in support of a future conversion of the Jews, we would find that list of witnesses for geocentrism likewise decimated” (“The Ongoing Role of the Jews in Salvation History“). Of course, Sungenis is simply wrong about some of the rules for evaluating patristics, and he seems to just make them up as he goes along — such as his recent insistence when dealing with the “Conversion of the Jews” that a Church Father can’t simply state a belief and cite a passage of Scripture as the basis for that belief in order for it to carry weight. According to Sungenis‘s “rule”, the Father must also provide a detailed exegesis of the relevant Scriptural passage (remarkably, Sungenis blithely dismissed forty-five patristic citations with the flippant comment, “no exegesis, just assertions”. [LINK]). But it’s particularly interesting to note that Sungenis develops amnesia about these same made up rules when it comes to his favored belief, geocentrism. And, of course, Sungenis was also simply wrong about the nature of the patristic witness in support of “the Conversion of the Jews” – which is extensive, explicitly based on scripture and presented by Fathers of the East and West as a matter of revelation/faith rather than reason or science. But it’s probably safe to assume that we’ll never see him even attempt to apply the hermeneutic of suspicion he uses to dismiss patristic testimony concerning positive eschatological promises to the Jews to his pet cause, geocentrism. For him, it always seems to be one standard for me and another for thee.
But even without applying an undue hermeneutic of suspicion it can be demonstrated that the patristic quotes that Sungenis deploys to try to establish a “unanimous consent” of the Fathers fall far short of what he needs to demonstrate, namely, that a consensus of the Fathers presented geocentric cosmology as a matter of divine and revealed faith. Space doesn’t permit me to interact with every patristic quote that Sungenis brings to the table. But we can certainly see a number of different patterns that serve to highlight just how far short this evidence falls of meeting that bar.
Second, there are any number of patristic quotes brought forth by Sungenis in which the Father in question does nothing more than simply quote or allude to a given Bible passage. But this does nothing to advance the question, for if the author of the Scripture passage is merely using phenomenological language (i.e., language that describes matters as they appear to our senses without necessarily intending to convey objective, scientific fact) then there is no reason to suppose that a given Father means any more than that when quoting it. For example, Sungenis quotes St. Ephraim the Syrian thus: “The sun in his course teaches thee that thou rest from labour.” But how does this help the geocentrist? For even in a geocentrist cosmology the sun does not “rest” anywhere, but moves constantly. Clearly, St. Ephraim was not being scientific, but poetic and was speaking according to the appearance that the sun “rests” when it is nighttime.
Or let’s take the example cited from St. Gregory Nazianzus, who says, “The sun is extolled by David for its beauty, its greatness, its swift course, and its power, splendid as a bridegroom, majestic as a giant; while, from the extent of its circuit, it has such power that it equally sheds its light from one end of heaven to the other, and the heat thereof is in no wise lessened by distance.” Here, aside from being factually incorrect about the heat of the sun not diminishing with distance, the saint alludes to the poetic language of the psalms in order to make a further connection to the qualities of his dear friend St. Basil the Great. This does nothing to demonstrate that he held geocentrism as a matter of divine faith (and see further on this “The Pitfalls of Over-Literal Interpretation”).
Third, Sungenis brings forth witnesses who don’t say anything to support his point at all. For example, Sungenis cites the ancient apologist Arnobius thus: “The moon, the sun, the earth, the ether, the stars, are members and parts of the world; but if they are parts and members, they are certainly not themselves living creatures” (link). Let’s all grant this ancient Catholic’s point, that the sun, earth, and stars are not living creatures. But what does this have to do with establishing geocentrism? This citation contributes nothing to an alleged patristic consensus on the matter. And so it is with any number of passages put forth by Sungenis allegedly in support of geocentrism. They have nothing to do with the topic.
But then another more troubling pattern we find is that Sungenis cites selectively and often even misleadingly. Here’s an example from a very great Father, St. Athanasius. Sungenis cites the saint thus:
Second, St. Athanasius is not making some sort of precise scientific claim, much less claiming that the details of what he’s saying are a matter of revealed truth. Rather, he is making a general observation about the orderliness of creation and therefore of the existence of a Creator. It’s a perfectly good argument, but it does not establish the physical details of what he’s describing as a matter of revealed truth.
Third, notice that Sungenis has done with St. Athanasius just what he did with the Roman Catechism (see here and here). He takes a passage that addresses the dry land on the earth and presents it as if it was about the globe’s place in the cosmos. Notice what Sungenis cut out with the ellipses:
while the earth again evidently does not yield her crops without rains, which in their turn would not descend to earth without the assistance of the clouds; but not even would the clouds ever appear of themselves and subsist, without the air. And the air is warmed by the upper air, but illuminated and made bright by the sun, not by itself. 6. And wells, again, and rivers will never exist without the earth (link)
St. Athanasius is clearly speaking of the dry land on the surface of the earth and its relationship to the water, not to the position of the entire planet in relation to the universe. This passage does nothing to establish geocentrism even as a matter of natural philosophy, let alone as a matter of divine revelation.
Then finally notice that just a little further on, St. Athanasius puts forward the view that all things in the universe are made up of four elements:
For as to the four elements of which the nature of bodies is composed, heat, that is, and cold, wet and dry, who is so perverted in his understanding as not to know that these things exist indeed in combination, but if separated and taken alone they tend to destroy even one another according to the prevailing power of the more abundant element? For heat is destroyed by cold if it be present in greater quantity, and cold again is put away by the power of heat, and what is dry, again, is moistened by wet, and the latter dried by the former (link).
Here again we have an example of a Father simply accepting the natural philosophy of his day, but which we now know to be incorrect. Sungenis passed over this scientific inaccuracy in silence. Let’s have one more example to illustrate this pattern. Sungenis quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa as follows:
…the vault of heaven prolongs itself so uninterruptedly that it encircles all things with itself, and that the earth and its surroundings are poised in the middle, and that the motion of all the revolving bodies is round this fixed and solid centre… (GWW2, p. 96; ellipses are his.)
Now here’s the full quote in context:
And how, then, I asked, is it that some think that by the underworld is meant an actual place, and that it harbours within itself the souls that have at last flitted away from human life, drawing them towards itself as the right receptacle for such natures?
Well, replied the Teacher, our doctrine will be in no ways injured by such a supposition. For if it is true, what you say, and also that the vault of heaven prolongs itself so uninterruptedly that it encircles all things with itself, and that the earth and its surroundings are poised in the middle, and that the motion of all the revolving bodies is round this fixed and solid centre, then, I say, there is an absolute necessity that, whatever may happen to each one of the atoms on the upper side of the earth, the same will happen on the opposite side, seeing that one single substance encompasses its entire bulk. As, when the sun shines above the earth, the shadow is spread over its lower part, because its spherical shape makes it impossible for it to be clasped all round at one and the same time by the rays, and necessarily, on whatever side the sun’s rays may fall on some particular point of the globe, if we follow a straight diameter, we shall find shadow upon the opposite point, and so, continuously, at the opposite end of the direct line of the rays shadow moves round that globe, keeping pace with the sun, so that equally in their turn both the upper half and the under half of the earth are in light and darkness; so, by this analogy, we have reason to be certain that, whatever in our hemisphere is observed to befall the atoms, the same will befall them in that other. The environment of the atoms being one and the same on every side of the earth, I deem it right neither to contradict nor yet to favour those who raise the objection that we must regard either this or the lower region as assigned to the souls released (link; emphasis mine).
This is why it is so precarious to try and extract precise scientific guidance and details from the Fathers. The fact is that the Fathers make many (now) obvious scientific mistakes. This is no slight of the Fathers, it’s just an acknowledgement of the limitations of the science of their day. I detailed a number of these mistakes elsewhere (see here) and one Internet critic dubbed me “Mr. Smartass” for what he considered my cheeky attitude toward the Fathers (see Answering a Site that Ridicules Church Fathers On Geocentrism). I obviously meant no disrespect, but rather was highlighting the double standard deployed by Sungenis, in which alleged mistakes by the Fathers in matters pertaining the Jewish people in a positive way are used by him to discredit their testimony, whereas he turns a blind eye to their obvious errors in matters of science.
The same dynamic may be seen in Sungenis’s truncation of a citation by St. Basil the Great—but to keep this present study within reasonable bounds, the reader is urged to see my treatment of that example elsewhere (see here.)
But mistakes by the Fathers in purely natural matters present no problem for a Catholic, because the Church has never taught that in such matters they have any special insight above anybody else.
Obviously, space doesn’t permit a detailed analysis of each patristic passage proffered by Sungenis to supposedly prove there’s a patristic consensus establishing geocentrism as a matter of revealed truth. But the reader is invited to look at them and notice how many of the citations present the matter purely as a matter of natural philosophy (i.e. science), with no reference to faith at all. In other cases, one can find a bare citation of Scripture, with no indication as to whether the Father intends to take its words as literally describing a physical reality, versus simply presenting phenomenological language such as the sun “rises” and “sets”. Other examples have no connection to the question at all. And still others are woven through with what even the geocentrists would have to admit are scientific errors of that day, further undermining the notion that the Father was passing on a matter of divine faith rather than simply expressing himself in the context of the best science of his day.
When we combine this with the fact that the Magisterium has never said that the Fathers are in consensus on geocentrism—indeed, that twice during the Galileo controversy this very claim was purposely excised before a magisterial decree was promulgated—we find that support for the geocentrist “ace in the hole” regarding a consensus of the Fathers is little more than a mirage.
The fact that the Fathers never put forward their views of cosmology as matters of faith touches on another geocentrist argument that has been repeated numerous times. The claim is that the Fathers not only held to geocentrism—which all can affirm that in the main they did, that being the best science of their day—but that they did so in direct opposition to Greek heliocentrism. Here’s how Sungenis repeats this argument throughout GWW:
Copernicus rests his lot with the Greek philosophers and astronomers, the very individuals upon whom the Church Fathers focused their critiques in the areas of cosmology and cosmogony (GWW2, 29). St. Augustine and St. Thomas were both geocentrists, in opposition to the Greeks and Indians who were promoting heliocentrism (GWW2, 53).
The “Fathers,” as we have seen in Chapter 13 were all avowed geocentrists in the face of many of the Greek philosophers and astronomers who were espousing heliocentrism (GWW2, p. 132).
As we discovered in Chapter 13, all the Fathers of the Church were geocentrists. There was not one who advocated a heliocentric view, even though these same Fathers were aware that the Greeks from the Pythagorean school were advocating heliocentrism (GWW2, 171).
Since Galileo hardly read the Fathers, he would have missed the frequent debates and admonitions they raised in their writing against the speculative science of the Greeks, including the push for evolution and heliocentrism in the Pythagorean school (GWW2, 208).
We notice in the Inquisition’s approval that the heliocentric system is tied directly to Pythagoras, thus showing the 1742 Church’s recognition that the battle over cosmology was a long-running one, which began when the Church Fathers held fast to the fixed Earth of Scripture against the moving Earth of the Greek philosophers (GWW, p. 231).
Concerning that last quote, I should say that it does not follow at all that because the decree of the Index in 1616 mentioned a “Pythagorean doctrine” that this serves as evidence of an alleged “long-running” battle beginning with the Church Fathers. It need indicate no more than that Copernicus himself drew upon preceding Greek thought when he formulated his theory.
I don’t conclude from this that any given Father actually held to Greek heliocentrism because that would go beyond the evidence. But at the very least it highlights two things. First, the geocentrists frequently advance arguments that sound very convincing and which they assert with absolute certainty. But all too often, when one looks into the matter carefully, one finds that they have built a great edifice on nothing—there just isn’t sufficient evidence to back up their claims (as is so often true of such conspiracy theorists).
And second, it indicates yet again that for the Fathers this really was not a matter of divine revelation but of natural philosophy. At least two Fathers (Sts. Hippolytus and Anatolius) cite Greek philosophers concerning a mobile earth with no indication that they opposed this view. They, at least, did not see this view as so pernicious, so corrosive to the Christian faith that it demanded some immediate rebuttal or opposition.
The fact remains that with respect to this tenet that Bob Sungenis and other geocentrists consider to be the very heart of the matter—the mobility of the earth itself—the patristic evidence is paltry, insignificant, relies much more heavily on natural philosophical views than Scripture (if they rely on Scripture for this point at all), and falls far short of establishing any sort of “consensus”.
In the same vein, the geocentrists repeatedly put forward another argument for the importance of geocentric cosmology, namely, that if earth is not at the physical center of things this displaces man as the center of God’s creation:
humility guides the human soul to recognize that there is Someone much higher than we Who has esteemed Earth so much that He put it in a most unique place in the universe to be the apple of His eye. Arrogance is on the side of those who would seek to remove that Someone from our immediate purview by throwing the Earth into the remote recesses of space (GWW1, 29). An Earth set adrift will invariably make everything else relative and thus, as Hawking admits, will turn the notions of “certainty” and “absolutes” into mere figments of our imagination (GWW1, p. 30).
Although this argument has a certain psychological appeal, the insurmountable problem for the geocentrists is that they never actually cite any magisterial sources, no Fathers or Doctors of the Church, nor even any of the personalities involved in the actual Galileo affair in its support. And there’s a good reason for this. This was not an argument used by any of the Fathers, any of the medievals, or even the prelates involved in the Galileo affair:
One construal of the motivation behind the decree of 1616 that finds favor in some quarters today comes from long after the facts. It is that the proposed shift of the cosmic center from earth to sun effectively displaced humans from their exalted place at the center of the universe and thus had to be resisted by a Church that saw human beings as the center of God’s creation, as the privileged beings around whom the rest of the world circled. . . . But this will not do. It may well be what the enlightened modern would say should have been the Church’s reaction to this displacement of human beings from the center of the Creation they had occupied, unchallenged, until then. But in fact there is hardly any reference at all to this consideration in the abundant criticisms of Copernicanism from the theologians of the immediate post-1633 period. It seems very unlikely that it played a major role in the qualifiers’ discussions; they had plenty of other reservations of more immediate consequence in mind. And, of course, of itself it would not have warranted the censure found in the decree.
What is more, the center was not, in fact, regarded by the theologians of that day as a particularly favorable location. The abode of the blessed was at the circumference, and Bellarmine was not alone in situating hell at the center of the universe–that is, at the center of the earth. In the Aristotelian view of the matter, the earth was the locus of change, of corruption, by contrast with the serenity of the celestial regions. It was true, of course, that in the Christian vision human beings, made in the image of God, were central to the work of Creation, for on them alone was bestowed the ability, at once fatal and ennobling, to choose freely. But to go from this sort of “centrality” to the literal sort of centrality that these modern interpreters of 1616 have in mind is an inference that the theologians of 1616 would have been far less inclined to make than would the speculative interpreters of today (E. McMullin, “The Church’s Ban On Copernicanism”, in The Church and Galileo, pp. 165-6).
In an exchange on various scientific topics (in which Rick DeLano had to admit that he was well and truly bested), his interlocutor also pointed out just how skewed this theological emphasis on the earth’s physical location really is:
That’s weird, because you’ve been saying the opposite. It’s almost like you actually don’t understand, and only care about grasping at whatever proves your pre-conceived model of the universe correct and ignoring anything contrary. But this disregard for science isn’t that troubling to me; it’s all too typical. Here’s what really bothers me at the end of the day: The notion that God needs to put humanity in the center of the universe in order to give us our due attention. That God in all His infinity couldn’t have sent His son to die for us without us also being at the physical center of the cosmos.
What is the most important thing in the universe? Is it God? Or is it Man? Who are you really worshiping with this model of the universe? (link).
Indeed, I propose that this argument highlights much more the geocentrists’ own psychological neediness and insecurity than it does anything about the authentic teaching of Scripture or the Fathers and Doctors of Church (a theme we’ve seen repeated in other contexts). It also shows yet again that their arguments aren’t necessarily those of the Catholic Church. We have seen repeatedly throughout this series of essays that although they claim to be advancing true Catholic doctrine, the modern geocentrists simply don’t share the mind of the Church on these matters. They’re marketing their own beliefs and products.
The real key to this whole matter is to read both Scripture and the Fathers with the mind of the Church. We’ve already seen that the Magisterium of the Catholic Church doesn’t support the geocentrist claim that the Fathers are in unanimous consensus in upholding geocentrism as a matter of divine faith. But the geocentrist position becomes even more untenable when we find that the Magisterium has officially adopted principles laid out by her two greatest Doctors, St. Augustine and St. Thomas, which completely undermine the modern geocentrist approach to both Scripture and the Fathers.
As I demonstrated in detail in “Geocentrism and Strict Canonical Interpretation,” the 1633 decree of the Holy Office against Galileo doesn’t settle this question at all. It doesn’t bind the Church to any particular cosmology, least of all geocentrism. And since it addresses only a strict Copernicanism—with an immobile sun at the center of the universe—it applies to no one and never will again.
Thus, the hermeneutical questions remained unanswered in the aftermath of the Galileo affair. Ultimately, the Church alone had the authority to answer this question. And answer it she did. In the doctrinal development fomented by that controversy, the Magisterium drew explicitly from the principles expounded by her two greatest Doctors, Sts. Augustine and Thomas, and authoritatively settled the question of whether we’re to draw conclusions about the details of the physical universe from the pages of sacred Scripture. The answer is, no.
It is frequently asked what our belief must be about the form and shape of heaven according to Sacred Scripture. Many scholars engaged in lengthy discussions on these matters, but the sacred writers with their deeper wisdom have omitted them. Such subjects are of no profit for those who seek beatitude, and, what is worse, they take up precious time that ought to be given to what is spiritually beneficial. What concern is it of mine whether heaven is a sphere and the earth is enclosed by it and suspended in the middle of the universe, or whether heaven like a disk above the earth covers it on one side? But the credibility of Scripture is at stake, and as I have indicated more than once, there is danger that a man uninstructed in divine revelation, discovering something in Scripture or hearing from it something that seems to be at variance with the knowledge that he has acquired, may resolutely withhold his assent in other matters where Scripture presents useful admonitions, narratives, or declarations. Hence, I must say briefly that in the matter of the shape of heaven the sacred writers knew the truth, but that the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, did not wish to teach men these facts that would be of no avail to their salvation (see here).
St. Augustine is adamant that Christians should not pit the findings of the physical sciences against the words of sacred Scripture. And this is not only because the focus of sacred Scripture is “how to go to heaven and not how the heavens go”, but also because many passages of Scripture admit of more than one meaning and if there seems to be a clash between an observation in the physical universe and a proposed meaning of Scripture, it may be that the interpreter has misunderstood Scripture:
It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation (‘De genesi ad litteram’ (The literal meaning of Genesis), book 2, chapter 9, tr. J.H.Taylor, 1982).
I answer that, in discussing questions of this kind two rules are to be observed, as Augustine teaches. The first is, to hold the truth of Scripture without wavering. The second is that since Holy Scripture can be explained in a multiplicity of senses, one should adhere to a particular explanation only in such measure as to be ready to abandon it if it be proved with certainty to be false, lest Holy Scripture be exposed to the ridicule of unbelievers, and obstacles be placed to their believing. We say, therefore, that the words which speak of the firmament as made on the second day can be understood in two senses. . . . [he goes on to discuss various ideas of the heavens, Plato, Aristotle et al.] If, however, we take these days to denote merely sequence in the natural order, as Augustine holds, and not secession in time, there is then nothing to prevent our saying, whilst holding any one of the opinions given above, that the substantial formation of the firmament belongs to the second day. (cited in What would St. Thomas say?, from ST, First Part, Question 68)
When it comes to geocentrism itself, St. Thomas, like the Fathers, gives no indication at all that this is anything for him other than a matter of natural philosophy:
Even Saint Thomas, when he argued for the geocentric cosmology in the Summa, argued based on the observations of Ptolemy, a natural scientist and a pagan. Not the Bible. Not the Church fathers. Ptolemy. This is a question for natural science, not an article of the faith (link).
Adoption of the hermeneutical principles of St. Augustine and St. Thomas (and Galileo) by Leo XIII:
we must remember, first, that the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy Ghost “Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable unto salvation.” Hence they did not seek to penetrate the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with things in more or less figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science. Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what comes under the senses; and somewhat in the same way the sacred writers-as the Angelic Doctor also reminds us – `went by what sensibly appeared,” or put down what God, speaking to men, signified, in the way men could understand and were accustomed to.
I hope it goes without saying that even a consensus of the Fathers (should one exist) cannot establish from sacred Scripture something that the Holy Spirit never put there in the first place. If the Holy Spirit had no intention of teaching men these things through the writers of Scripture, then the musings of the Fathers on various physical phenomena, even if they make an appeal to Scripture in support of their view, do not and cannot bind as a matter of faith. The pope then teaches that we aren’t bound to follow the Fathers when they write about “physical matters”, but only what they “lay down as belonging to the faith”:
The unshrinking defence of the Holy Scripture, however, does not require that we should equally uphold all the opinions which each of the Fathers or the more recent interpreters have put forth in explaining it; for it may be that, in commenting on passages where physical matters occur, they have sometimes expressed the ideas of their own times, and thus made statements which in these days have been abandoned as incorrect. Hence, in their interpretations, we must carefully note what they lay down as belonging to faith, or as intimately connected with faith-what they are unanimous in. For “in those things which do not come under the obligation of faith, the Saints were at liberty to hold divergent opinions, just as we ourselves are,”(55) according to the saying of St. Thomas. And in another place he says most admirably: “When philosophers are agreed upon a point, and it is not contrary to our faith, it is safer, in my opinion, neither to lay down such a point as a dogma of faith, even though it is perhaps so presented by the philosophers, nor to reject it as against faith, lest we thus give to the wise of this world an occasion of despising our faith.”
We’ve already seen above that it isn’t possible to establish from the patristic witnesses that they “lay down as belonging to the faith” any aspect of geocentric cosmology. Their authority as teachers of the faith simply doesn’t lend them authority in matters of physical science. Rather, as the eminent Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott notes:
Even though all Holy Writ is inspired and is the Word of God, still, following St. Thomas (Sent. II.d.12.q.I.a.2), a distinction must be made between that which is inspired per se, and that which is inspired per accidens. As the truths of Revelation laid down in Holy Writ are designed to serve the end of religious and moral teaching, inspiration per se extends only to the religious and moral truths. The data inspired per accidens is also the Word to the religious-moral truths. The data inspired per accidens is also the Word of God, and consequently without error. However, as the hagiographers in profane things make use of a popular, that is, a non-scientific form of exposition suitable to the mental perception of their times, a more liberal interpretation is possible here. The Church gives no positive decisions in regard to purely scientific questions, but limits itself to rejecting errors which endanger the faith. Further, in these scientific matters there is no value in a consensus of the Fathers since they are not here acting as witnesses of the Faith, but merely as private scientists. (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 92; emphasis mine.)
Action upon these principles by Pope St. Pius X:
Question VIII: Whether in that designation and distinction of six days, with which the account of the first chapter of Genesis deals, the word (dies) can be assumed either in its proper sense as a natural day, or in the improper sense of a certain space of time; and whether with regard to such a question there can be free disagreement among exegetes? — Reply: In the affirmative (link).
Notice that blanket permission is granted, allowing both the natural sense of 24 hours and the “improper” sense of a space of time. Contrary to a strange geocentrist counter-argument, this permission cannot be limited to just “exegetes” (as if only exegetes and not all Catholic have this liberty). The blanket permission and the clause about exegetes are separated by the word “and” (deque) and so these form separate queries. Thus the clause about exegetes is focused not on whether it is permissible to hold differing views, but whether it is permissible to freely (that is, openly) disagree about these views. This is a two-fold broad permission by the Magisterium: the permission for anyone to hold divergent views and for exegetes to openly air disagreements on the matter of the days of creation.
As we saw above, the Magisterium has thrice ruled that the unanimity of the Fathers binds only in matters of faith or morals. The only way this official, magisterial ruling by the PBC can be harmonized with those restrictions is to recognize that the Magisterium does not regard the length of these days as a matter of faith or morals. This is reinforced by answer given on Question 7 in this same ruling:
Question VII: Whether, since in writing the first chapter of Genesis it was not the mind of the sacred author to teach in a scientific manner the detailed constitution of visible things and the complete order of creation, but rather to give his people a popular notion, according as the common speech of the times went, accommodated to the understanding and capacity of men, the propriety of scientific language is to be investigated exactly and always in the interpretation of these? — Reply: In the negative (link).
Notice that in this ruling the Magisterium grants the basic premise of the question—viz. that the author of Genesis did not intend to put details of the physical order into the creation account—and decides instead according to the rule laid out by Pope Leo XIII that the author used “common speech of the times”. This is just exactly the opposite of the approach taken by the geocentrists, who are constantly alleging that all sorts of specific details about the physical universe can be mined out of the first chapters of Genesis and from sacred Scripture in general.
This is a formal act of the Magisterium, personally approved by the sainted Pope Pius X. The geocentrists claim that there is unanimous consent of the Fathers on the days of creation. Thus we here have the Magisterium—with a canonized saint at its head—explicitly ruling against what they claim is unanimous patristic consent on a matter of Scripture and physical science. How could this be, unless as we have been arguing all along, matters of physical science don’t fall into the category of faith and morals and hence, even if the Fathers were unanimous on some point of natural philosophy, their unanimity doesn’t bind as a doctrine of the faith?
Not only is this view of Leo XIII’s Providentissimus Deus the mainstream view of orthodox Catholic theologians, this is the view acted upon by the Magisterium. (Remember too that in 1822 the Holy Office ordered that non-geocentric books be permitted and even attached the threat of punishment against any who would refuse to do so—see here.) Again, the geocentrists have to concoct a panoply of conspiracy theories and doom scenarios to explain how all this can be. Either this is a massive defection from the Faith or the Catholic Magisterium operates under a very different set of principles than the modern geocentrists.
Reiteration of these principles by Pope Pius XII:
The first and greatest care of Leo XIII was to set forth the teaching on the truth of the Sacred Books and to defend it from attack. Hence with grave words did he proclaim that there is no error whatsoever if the sacred writer, speaking of things of the physical order “went by what sensibly appeared” as the Angelic Doctor says, speaking either “in figurative language, or in terms which were commonly used at the time, and which in many instances are in daily use at this day, even among the most eminent men of science.” For “the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately – the words are St. Augustine’s –  the Holy Spirit, Who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men these things – that is the essential nature of the things of the universe – things in no way profitable to salvation”; which principle “will apply to cognate sciences, and especially to history,” (Divino Afflante Spiritu §3.)
Answering the Geocentrist Replies:
Sts. Augustine and Thomas laid out the principles on which the Church has pursued this question and these have now been made magisterial by Popes Leo XIII and Pius XII. The only answer that new geocentrists like Bob Sungenis and Rick DeLano have to those principles is essentially, “Oh yeah, well Augustine and Thomas were geocentrists, so those principles can’t apply to geocentrism.” Here’s how Sungenis puts it in one place:
Johnston’s attempt to commandeer Augustine to support heliocentrism is common among Catholic authors who are seeking some way to counter the magisterium’s condemnation of Copernican cosmology and Galileo’s support of it in the 1600s. All these attempts, of course, are done in the face of the fact that Augustine, as we will see later, believed firmly in geocentrism and defended it vigorously (GWW2, 53.)
Sungenis even goes so far so to claim that “it is a fact of history that Aquinas was an avowed geocentrist” (GWW2, 56.)
But ultimately this is a completely irrelevant point. Fine, these men were geocentrists. Granted. Why shouldn’t they have been? They were smart fellows and geocentrism was the best science of their day.
But contrary to the unsubstantiated claim that St. Augustine and St. Thomas were “avowed” geocentrists, we have seen above that both Doctors show every indication that this was for them merely a matter of natural philosophy/science, not a matter of divine revelation. It’s not enough for the new geocentrists to demonstrate that a given Father or Doctor of the Church was a geocentrist. What they have to demonstrate is that these men held geocentrism as a matter of faith. But there is no evidence that they held to geocentrism as a matter of faith, or as established on the basis of divine revelation. And the Church has never taught that geocentrism is a matter of faith either. Period.
One proposed counter-argument to this view is advanced by one “John Martin” (a pseudonym) who insists that when Pope Leo XIII says, “we must carefully note what they lay down as belonging to faith, or as intimately connected with faith-what they are unanimous in,” this means that whatever the Fathers might hold as a view in common is by definition a matter of faith.
Sungenis has attempted another tack, arguing that because Pope Leo XIII doesn’t explicitly mention the matter of geocentrism in Providentissimus Deus, we therefore have no grounds on which to suppose that his words apply to that topic. This argument is heavily grounded in another canard put forth so confidently by Sungenis, namely, that the 1633 decree against Galileo represents a prohibition against all non-geocentric cosmologies that is still “on the books” as it were and can only be reversed by a formal canonical trial. But in “Geocentrism and the Canonical Trial Canard” and “Geocentrism and Strict Canonical Interpretation”, I’ve demonstrated that there’s isn’t a shred of support for this view.
Further, Pope Leo XIII laid out a principle—he calls it a “rule”—of interpretation. A principle or rule, by its very nature, applies broadly. Therefore, the pope doesn’t need to tell us specifically all the instances where it can be applied. Far from it being my burden to show that general principles or rules apply to a specific case—in this case the matter of geocentrism—it is Sungenis’ burden, precisely because these are general principles, to prove that they do not apply to the matter of geocentrism. This he certainly won’t be able to do, because the principles plainly do apply to that topic.
Additional strong support for this point may be found in the fact that Pope Leo XIII has, as many scholars have observed, essentially adopted the very same hermeneutical principles advanced by Galileo in his own defense! So those who would claim that Pope Leo’s words can’t apply to geocentrism at the very least would have to admit that the Pope was, in that case, an incredibly bad communicator, since the very structure of his argument and even the authorities that he cites recall and parallel the arguments advanced by Galileo.
Further highlighting how untenable Sungenis’ argument is, is the fact that he can’t manage to apply his quirky spin on the pope’s encyclical to a single passage of Scripture, despite his many attempts (see my detailed rebuttal here).
His claims in a couple of places that what Pope Leo XIII and Pius XII were really referring to were things like “atoms, forces, etc.” and “not to the general movements of the cosmos” can at best be characterized as desperate (Response to the SSPX Press Release on Geocentrism, p. 3 and Response to David Palm on Galileo Trial, p. 4). The problem for Sungenis is that the popes explicitly speak of language “commonly used at the time”, i.e. in ancient times. Can Bob Sungenis come up with even one example of any author of Scripture using the “commonly used” language of his day to describe “forces” and “atoms”? Don’t hold your breath.
Ultimately, the geocentrist “interpretation” of the popes on this issue is really just an attempt to skirt their clear teaching. There’s one classic example of this sort of phenomenological language that was used in ancient times and “which [is] in daily use at this day, even by the most eminent men of science” and that’s the language of sunrise and sunset. Anyone with an ounce of common sense can see that Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical pertains first and foremost to this classic example of an apparent clash between the discoveries of physical science and sacred Scripture.
And so now, the last attempt of the new geocentrists to appropriate Catholic authority in order to legitimize and promote their personal quest has been denied. The Popes have taught that the details of the physical universe were not put into sacred Scripture by the Holy Spirit; thus they aren’t matters of faith and morals. Period. The testimony of the Fathers is only binding in matters of faith and morals and the Fathers can’t put into the Scriptures what isn’t there in the first place. Thus their testimony on the matter of geocentrism wouldn’t make this a binding doctrine, even if they were unanimous.
What’s more, the Church herself has never ruled that the Fathers are unanimous on any aspect of geocentrism. Quite the contrary, during the very Galileo controversy itself the Magisterium twice removed any mention of the Fathers from a consultants’ report before issuing decrees on the matter. So no Catholic need scruple to examine the patristic evidence for himself.
Taking Sungenis’ own repeated insistence that the earth’s immobility is really the core issue at stake, we find that there are very few patristic witnesses in its favor at all and the majority cite various pagan natural philosophers in its support. But even when we broaden the examination, we find that the Fathers don’t present geocentrism as anything more than a matter of natural philosophy (i.e. science).
So yes, for Catholics there is freedom on this issue. But there’s also responsibility. Modern geocentrists peddle a view of the universe that requires so much special pleading to maintain that it seriously compromises their personal credibility and, much more importantly, harms the credibility of the Catholic faith when they illegitimately try to appropriate clout by falsely claiming that it’s the official teaching of the Church. The approach to science and theology espoused by Sts. Augustine and Thomas has been officially enshrined by the Catholic Church in the great papal encyclicals Providentissimus Deus and Divino Afflante Spiritu and acted upon by the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the Holy Office. So a Catholic need not give the theological claims and accusations made by the geocentrists a second thought. The Catholic Church does not now teach and never has taught geocentrism or any other cosmology as a matter of faith.