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What is the doctrinal status of ‘geocentrism’? By geocentrism I mean the doctrine that the earth is stationary in the midst of the universe. I don’t want here to consider the discussions amongst astronomers about the different ways of interpreting the phenomena, nor the correct interpretation of various passages of Scripture, nor the patristic testimony, but simply the papal magisterium.

The first relevant text that I know is the Roman Catechism, promulgated in 1566 by order of Pope St Pius V. Under the discussion of the first article of the creed, this catechism states: ‘God also commanded the earth to stand in the midst of the universe, rooted in its own foundations’. Since Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus was published in 1543, this statement about the position of the earth can hardly, I think, have been just an obiter dictum: it seems like a first, relatively gentle, shot across the bows of the heliocentrists.

In 1616, under Pope Paul V, the Holy Office judged the proposition that the earth is not in the centre of the universe to be ‘at least erroneous in faith’, and at the same time declared Copernicanism to be ‘a false, Pythagorean doctrine, wholly opposed to the divine Scriptures.’

In 1633, under Pope Urban VIII, the Holy Office described the same proposition as ‘false in philosophy [i.e. natural science], and, theologically considered, at least erroneous in faith’. I take the first part of this censure to follow logically from the second, since if something is false in theology, it must also be false in any other discipline that could consider it.

In 1992 Pope John Paul II, in an address to the Academy of Sciences, said: ‘the error of the theologians [sic] of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world’s structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture.’

It is clear that Pope John Paul II believed, along with the great majority of people who have been to school, that geocentrism is false. His words, though, are not clear or solemn enough to constitute a formal rescinding of the decrees of his predecessors or of the passage cited from the Roman Catechism. He speaks of errors of unnamed theologians, and doesn’t mention the papal decrees or the catechism. Again, a speech of this kind to a pontifical academy is of less weight than a decree of the Holy Office published by order of the pope. The former seems intended as a useful contribution to a debate, the latter is simply an exercise of the papal magisterium, telling Catholics what they ought to believe.

I incline then, to the view that geocentrism belongs at least to the category of doctrines mentioned by canon 751 of the present Code: ‘While the assent of faith is not required, a religious submission of intellect and will is to be given to any doctrine which either the supreme pontiff or the college of bishops, exercising their authentic magisterium, declare upon a matter of faith and morals, even though they do not intend to proclaim that doctrine by definitive act.’

However, since popes since the 19th century have shown that they do not intend to enforce this religious submission, it does not seem right to characterise those who do not yield it as disobedient.