Thursday, January 06, 2011

Pope Leo XIII On Literal Interpretation and the Unanimous Consent of the Fathers [and Geocentrism] (by David Palm)

I am cross-posting this article from my friend David Palm in its entirety (see the original URL on his site). One can't tell by his title (the bracketed portion is my own sub-title), but its subject matter is geocentrism (the notion that the earth is the immobile center of the physical universe).

I no longer allow geocentrist comments on my site, since this privilege was royally abused by folks of that persuasion (with massive violation of my blog rules against personal attacks) in a previous 446-comment combox (largest ever in almost seven years on this blog) and a more recent 71-comment one (that I pared down by removing 127 comments from both sides of the dispute that contained personal content of some objectionable sort). Because of this unfortunate conduct, I won't allow any comments for posts having to do with geocentrism. Free speech on blogs is a privilege accorded by the host, not a right granted by God. There is a point at which it is so abused that it is necessary to remove it.

Those wishing to comment further can go to David Palm's combox for this paper.

See also the related paper:

Geocentrism: Not at All an Infallible Dogma of the Catholic Church
(David Palm and "Jordanes")

Geocentrist Robert Sungenis counter-replied:

Response to David Palm on the Galileo Issue (PDF)

Sungenis has also replied to this present post.

* * * * *

I mentioned on this blog that, unfortunately, there are some Catholics out and about noisily claiming that the view that the earth is the immobile center of the universe is a core part of the Catholic faith. I have already explained elsewhere why this view is untenable, but there are a few additional aspects of this issue that I want to examine over the course the next weeks.

Much is made in neo-geocentrist circles about Pope Leo XIII's dictum that the exegete of Scripture is, "not to depart from the literal and obvious sense, except only where reason makes it untenable or necessity requires" (Providentissimus Deus 15).

From this papal teaching, neo-geocentrists conclude that we are bound to what they claim is the "literal" interpretation of certain passages of Scripture, namely, that the sun revolves around the earth. But this claim is undermined by this admission made by a prominent neo-geocentrist writer:

the most important fact that is invariably missed by modern biblical exegetes who advocate heliocentrism is that Scripture's phenomenal language (e.g., the "sun rises" or the "sun sets") also applies to the geocentric system. In the geocentric system the sun does not "rise" or "set"; rather, it revolves around the Earth. When the geocentrist sees a beautiful sunset he does not remark: "Oh, what a beautiful revolution of the sun," just as the heliocentrist does not say: "Oh, what a beautiful rotation of the Earth." The geocentrist knows that the sun "rises" or "sets" only with respect to the Earth's horizon, and therefore, reference to a "rising sun" in Scripture is just as phenomenal in the geocentric system as it is in the heliocentric. (Galileo Was Wrong, vol 1, p. 226).

Here the neo-geocentrist seems not to realize that he has actually dismantled the geocentric appeal to Pope Leo XIII's dictum concerning the "literal and obvious sense" of Scripture. By admitting that both "geocentrists" and "heliocentrists" view these passages of Scripture as utilizing phenomenological language, he therefore admits that neither of them take these words in their "literal and obvious" sense. The literal and obvious interpretation of “the sun rises” or “the sun goes down” is that it literally goes up or down, not that it revolves around the earth and so it only appears to go up, or that the earth rotates on its axis so that it only appears to go down. There is nothing “literal and obvious” about taking the phrase “the sun rises” or “the sun goes down” to mean that the sun revolves or that the earth rotates. The words by themselves do not convey either meaning.

So, both “geocentrists” and “heliocentrists” interpret these words in light of what they believe to be the physical motions of various heavenly bodies. And even the geocentrist admits that the words themselves do not convey the details of the underlying physical reality. From the words themselves, one cannot determine which is correct - the sun revolves around the earth or the earth revolves around the sun. That information simply is not there.

A typical geocentrist response might be that some of the passages cited in support of geocentrism contain phenomenological language, but not all of them do. However, an examination of the passages cited reveals that, in fact, they do all employ phenomenological language. In Josh 10:12-14 we see the very language of the sun going “down” admitted above to be phenomenological; the sun did not literally go down, it appeared to go down. Passages like 2 Kings 20:11 and Isa 38:8 describe the movement of the sun’s shadow on a sundial, not the movement of the sun itself. And another prominent passage claimed for geocentrism, Psa 19:5-6, speaks of the sun coming forth from its “tent” and its “rising” - again, admitted above to be phenomenological language.

Both the geocentrist and non-geocentrist agree that these passages are not to be taken literally, but represent the language of appearances, the phenomena that were visible to the observers. But once the geocentrist admits this, he can no longer appeal to these passages as if they literally describe the underlying physical phenomena. And once they no longer literally describe physical phenomena, then no case can be made from them concerning “the essential nature of the things of the visible universe” nor can any claim be made to Leo XIII's dictum concerning the literal sense of Scripture.

But the neo-geocentrist has a ready reply. What, then, of the teaching of Trent, Vatican I, and Leo XIII that we must never interpret Scripture contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers?

At least one neo-geocentrist has fixated exclusively on the words of a selected sentence of the First Vatican Council and claimed that, on that basis, any view expressed by the Fathers, even if they do not cite Scripture, even if they make no indication that it is a matter of faith and morals, falls within the sphere of the “unanimous consent” to which we are bound (see here). It is bad enough that this ignores the previously section of Vatican I that specifically mentions “faith and morals”. But it also ignores the clarification that Pope Leo XIII made when discussing both Trent and Vatican I:

His teaching, and that of other Holy Fathers, is taken up by the Council of the Vatican, which, in renewing the decree of Trent declares its "mind" to be this - that "in things of faith and morals, belonging to the building up of Christian doctrine, that is to be considered the true sense of Holy Scripture which has been held and is held by our Holy Mother the Church, whose place it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the Scriptures; and therefore that it is permitted to no one to interpret Holy Scripture against such sense or also against the unanimous agreement of the Fathers." (Providentissimus Deus 14; my emphasis).

It is only in matters of faith and morals that the unanimity of the Fathers binds. This is the teaching of Trent, Vatican I, and Leo XIII.

Now, keeping these two points in mind, we progress to Providentissimus Deus 18 where Pope Leo XIII explicitly states that in areas where the writers of sacred Scripture utilize "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", the Holy Spirit "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"

Therefore, both the appeal to Pope Leo XIII's reference literal sense of the text and the appeal to a supposed unanimous sense of the Fathers fails to establish any obligation on a Catholic to interpret various passage of Scripture in support of geocentrism.

I have already touched upon the events of the seventeenth century in connection with the Galileo case and have explained why I do not believe that even those official ecclesiastical actions constitute a binding of Church to geocentrism as a matter of faith. I hope to return to address some details of those actions in future postings. But to summarize here:

Since 1) it is in matters of faith and morals that the Church exercises her authentic magisterium and 2) it is only on matters of faith and morals that the unanimity of the Fathers may be invoked as binding and 3) Pope Leo XIII and Pius XII made absolutely clear that the Holy Spirit "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", therefore it cannot be said that the Church ever taught geocentrism as a matter of faith in her ordinary magisterium. And it is admitted even by the neo-geocentrists that she has never done so in her extraordinary magisterium. Geocentrism is not now, nor has it ever been, a part of the Church’s ordinary magisterium (on this, see also Jeffrey Mirus, Galileo and the Magisterium: a Second Look)