A Few Comments on Geocentrism

Geocentrism is the belief that the earth is at the center of the solar system and the center of the universe. Geocentrism claims that the sun and planets revolve around the earth. I don’t believe in geocentrism. I don’t believe in creationism either.

The Catholic Christian religion is based on faith and reason. This implies that we should accept the reasonable well-supported conclusions of science, as long as these conclusions do not contradict a proper understanding of the Faith. When there is an apparent conflict between faith and science, we should not be too quick to decide which is correct. It may be that both our understanding of a Bible passage and our understanding of a scientific theory need improvement.

In ancient times, including the entire time when the Old Testament and New Testament were written, people thought that the sun revolved around the earth. This idea was not exclusive to religion, nor was it per se a religious belief. The scholars of that time thought that the sun, planets and stars all revolved around the earth. This idea was not unscientific, since science is based on observation and explanation. A scientist makes an observation, whether with the naked eye, or a microscope or telescope or other means, and then he proposes a theory to explain the observations. It is to be observed that the sun moves across the sky, as do the moon and stars. Ancient scholars thought that the sun revolves around the earth because that theory explained the information that they had from observation, at the time.

It is a common misconception, though, that, no one in ancient times knew that the earth was round (a globe) and that everyone thought the earth was flat. Pliny the Elder wrote a book in the first century A.D., titled Natural History; it is an explanation of the state of scientific knowledge at the time. He explains that the earth is a globe, and that its shadow during a lunar eclipse is conical, with only the tip of the cone reaching to the moon. He also states that Greek and Roman scholars as far back as the sixth century B.C. could predict eclipses. [Pliny the Elder, Natural History, book II, chapters ix, x., Loeb Classical Library]

So the scholars of ancient times gave the best explanation that they could for the observed data. They were not unintelligent, nor were they “deluded by religion”, as some persons might claim. The earth seems to be the center of the universe, with the sun, planets, moon, and stars rotating around it. So that is what early scientists thought to be true.

In 1543, Copernicus published his proposal that the earth and planets revolve around the sun. However, he also thought that the stars revolve around the sun, so that the sun was at the center of the universe. And he thought that the orbits of all celestial bodies around the sun were purely circular. This theory by Copernicus included some errors, but it was a major leap forward for our understanding of the universe. However, it was not immediately accepted by other scientists.

In the early 1600’s, Galileo promoted the Copernican view of the universe, in contradiction to the majority view of scientists at that time. One scientific objection to the Copernican view was the absence of observed parallax of the stars. When the earth is on opposite sides of the sun, six months apart in the year, the stars are viewed from a different angle, and this difference should detectable by observation — but it was not. This valid objection was due to the inability of scientists of that time to distinguish between very slight differences in angle (because the visible stars are such a great distance relative to the differences in position of the earth in its orbit).

The Church rejected the view of Galileo and Copernicus, and yes, this decision by the Church was an error. But the Church does not claim to be infallible in all its decisions, rulings, and teachings. Only certain teachings of the Magisterium, called dogma, are infallible (no possibility of error). Other teachings of the Magisterium are non-infallible (limited possibility of error). And rulings in particular cases, such as the case of Galileo, are fallible; they are of the temporal authority, not the teaching authority, of the Church.

However, in deciding against Galileo, the Church was siding with the majority view of scientists at the time. Those persons today who excoriate the Church for having decided against Galileo (and seemingly against science) are hypocrites. For they themselves always side with the majority view of scientists. And Galileo’s view at the time was the minority opinion. They criticize the Church for rejecting, at the time, the scientific conclusions of Copernicus and Galileo. But they themselves would have decided the same. Some of these persons today quickly ridicule anyone who proposes any idea contrary to the majority scientific view. But if they lived during the time of Galileo, they would have openly ridiculed him, since his view was contrary to the majority scientific view.

As for the apparent conflict between the Bible and the Copernican view of the universe, the conflict is due to an overly literal interpretation of the Bible passages in question. (More on that point in my forthcoming book on faith and science.)

In the 1600’s, Kepler improved on the Copernican view by the insight that the orbits of planets around the sun are elliptical, not circular. His insight was not immediately accepted by scientists, but only gradually adopted.

I don’t have space and time here to go through the entire history of astronomy thereafter. But suffice it to say that our current understanding was the work of many scientists over a long period of time, and that each generation of scientists found some errors with the work of the previous generation.

I would also like to point out that Einstein’s general relativity theory proposes that all motion is relative. So any point in the universe can be taken to be stationary, with all motion being relative to that point, and all the physical laws and accompanying mathematics should still work out. However, this insight does not return us to geocentrism, it simply adds another layer of understanding to our understanding of the universe.

And in modern theory of astrophysics, the universe does not really have edges or a center. So neither the earth nor the sun can be the center of the universe.

Non-scientists today tend to assume that science has always provided the right answers to questions. But it was not until 1924 that Hubble proved the existence of galaxies outside our own. And prior to Lemaître’s work in the early 1930’s, scientists thought the universe was infinite and always existed. Lemaître (a Catholic priest) proposed the Big Bang theory, which is the majority view of scientists today. However, the idea of the “inflation” of the universe as part of the Big Bang theory, was only proposed by Alan Guth in January of 1980. And when did scientists find concrete proof of this theory of cosmic inflation? March of 2014.

The lesson for us today is that scientific conclusions are not dogma. The accepted ideas and majority views of scientists today will undoubtedly be corrected and improved — to some extent — by the next generation of scientists.

But we should also keep in mind that the teachings of the Catholic Christian Faith can err in a number of ways. An infallible dogma that cannot, according to faith, be in error, can still be misunderstood. The non-infallible teachings of the Catholic Church are subject to error, and these non-infallible teachings are much more numerous than the infallible teachings. And beyond official teachings, any individual’s theological opinion or personal interpretation of the Bible is fallible.

So when science and faith conflict, either or both may have erred to some extent.

As for those Catholics today, on the far right of Catholic thought, who still adhere to geocentrism or creationism, they have gone astray by assuming that their own understanding of the Bible and the Faith cannot err. They say that the Bible is infallible; I agree. But then they fail to account for their own fallibility. The confuse Catholicism with their own understanding of Catholicism. If anyone disagrees with their own understanding of the Faith, they think he is disagreeing with the Faith itself. This is the same error made by Protestant fundamentalists, who fail to distinguish between the infallible teaching of the Bible and their own fallible interpretation of that infallible teaching.

I also have no sympathy for those conservative Catholics who have decided to replace Catholicism with conservatism. They imagine that the conservative answer to every question is necessarily the correct answer. They treat conservatism as if it were infallible. If the Pope or an Ecumenical Council teaches any idea contrary to conservatism, they reject it. They are no longer Christians or Catholic Christians, but conservative idolaters. Conservatism has become their god. And they are uncorrectable because they treat their own understanding of religion as if it were divine.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

See my book:
Noah’s Flood: Literal or Figurative?
available in print (paperback) and in Kindle format
for my proposed resolution to the conflict between faith and science on the great flood of Noah.

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