CHICAGO — Some people believe the world literally revolves around them. It’s a belief born not of selfishness but faith.
A small group of conservative Roman Catholics is pointing to a dozen biblical verses and the Church’s original teaching as proof that the Earth is the center of the universe, the view that prompted Galileo Galilei’s clash with the Church four centuries ago.
The relatively obscure movement has gained a following among some Catholics who find comfort in knowing there are still staunch defenders of original Church doctrine.
“This subject is, as far as I can see, an embarrassment to the modern Church because the world more or less looks upon geocentrism or someone who believes it in the same boat as the flat Earth,” said James Phillips of Cicero, Ill.
Phillips attends Our Lady Immaculate Catholic Church in Oak Park, Ill., a parish run by the Society of St. Pius X, a group that rejects most of the modernizing reforms the Vatican II council made from 1962 to 1965.
But by challenging modern science, the proponents of a geocentric universe are challenging the very church they seek to serve and protect.
“I have no idea who these people are. Are they sincere, or is this a clever bit of theater?” said Brother Guy Consolmagno, the curator of meteorites and spokesman for the Vatican Observatory.
Indeed, those promoting geocentrism argue that heliocentrism, or the centuries-old consensus among scientists that the Earth revolves around the sun, is nothing more than a conspiracy theory to squelch the church’s influence. “Heliocentrism becomes ‘dangerous’ if it is being propped up as the true system when, in fact, it is a false system,” said Robert Sungenis, leader of a budding movement to get scientists to reconsider. “False information leads to false ideas, and false ideas lead to illicit and immoral actions — thus the state of the world today. … Prior to Galileo, the church was in full command of the world; and governments and academia were subservient to her.”
Sungenis is no lone Don Quixote, as illustrated by the hundreds of curiosity seekers, skeptics and supporters at a conference last fall titled “Galileo Was Wrong. The Church Was Right” just off the University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind.
Astrophysicists at Notre Dame didn’t appreciate the group hitching its wagon to the prestige of America’s flagship Catholic university and resurrecting a concept that’s extinct for a reason.
“It’s an idea whose time has come and gone,” astrophysics professor Peter Garnavich said. “There are some people who want to move the world back to the 1950s when it seemed like a better time. These are people who want to move the world back to the 1250s. I don’t really understand it at all.”
Garnavich said the theory of geocentrism violates what he believes should be a strict separation of church and science. One answers why, the other answers how, and never the twain should meet, he said.
But supporters of the theory contend that there is scientific evidence to support geocentrism, just as there is evidence to support the six-day story of creation in Genesis.
There is proof in Scripture that the Earth is the center of the universe, Sungenis said. Among many verses, he cites Joshua 10:12-14 as definitive proof: “And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, while the nation took vengeance on its foe. … The sun halted in the middle of the sky; not for a whole day did it resume its swift course.”
But Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., said the Bible is silent on geocentrism.
“There’s a big difference between looking at the origin of the planets, the solar system and the universe and looking at presently how they move and how they are interrelated,” Ham said. “The Bible is neither geocentric or heliocentric. It does not give any specific information about the structure of the solar system.”
Just as Ham challenges the foundation of natural history museums, Sungenis challenges planetariums, most notably the Vatican Observatory.
Consolmagno said the very premise of going after Galileo illustrates the theory’s lack of scientific credibility.
“Of course, we understand the universe in a far more nuanced way than Galileo did 400 years ago,” he said. “And I would hope that the next 400 years would see just as much development.”
But Sungenis said the renewed interest in geocentrism is due, in part, to the efforts of Christians entering the scientific domain previously dominated by secularists. These Christian scientists, he said, showed modern science is without scientific foundation or even good evidence.
The issue has even sparked a debate between Art and Pat Jones of Lyons, Ill. Pat Jones, a conservative Catholic who often attends Mass at Phillips’ parish, said heliocentrism is part of a conspiracy.
“Because of our fallen nature in Christian terms, we take the line of least resistance — go with the flow,” said Pat Jones. “But the means of grace have to be intact.”
Her husband, Art, a self-described skeptical Protestant, says he is still a “doubting Thomas” but wouldn’t put it past the orthodox science community to cook up a conspiracy. He accompanied his wife to the South Bend conference to learn more and “keep peace in the family.”
Meanwhile, the theory has brought others like Phillips closer to God.
“I dropped my practice of faith,” Phillips said. “When I came back, it was a big wake-up call for me. … The world has its own dogmas.”