Thursday, December 16, 2010

Pope Leo XIII On Literal Interpretation and the Unanimous Consent of the Fathers

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 of the next weeks.

Much is made in the new 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, modern 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 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 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. 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. [Please see my Addendum and correction at the end of this essay.]

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 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 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 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)

[ Addendum:

It has been pointed out that the specific argument I used in the first edition of this essay with regard to Joshua 10:13—namely, that the sun is said to go “down” demonstrates that the biblical author employed phenomenological language—is incorrect because the Hebrew text does not actually include the word “down”. This is true, but the problem with this counter-argument is that it ignores that the word that is used, bô' (בּוֹא , “enter”), “always means ‘set’ when used of the sun” (A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, p. 285; see Gen 15:12, 17; 28:11; Exod 17:12; Exod 22:26; Lev 22:7; Deut 24:13, 15; Jos 10:13; Judg 14:18; Judg 19:14; 2 Sam 2:24; 3:35; Ecc 1:5; Isa 60:20; Jer 15:9 (figuratively); Amo 8:9; Mic 3:6 (figuratively).  The scholarly Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon defines the word thus, “of sun, set (go in, enter . . .  opposed to יצא go forth, rise)” (my emphasis).

This highlights the phenomenological nature of this language.  In English we speak of the sun “rising” and “setting”.  The ancient Hebrew in both prose and poetry spoke of the sun “going forth” and “going in”.  But “rising”, “setting”, “going forth” and “going in” with respect to what?  With respect to the horizon, of course.  And again, once the horizon is the frame of reference for a description of the sun’s course the geocentrist cannot insist that it describes literal astronomical motions, for even in their own system they would have to admit that the sun does not literally “go forth” from one horizon and “go in” to the other in its continuous orbit around the Earth.  As Bob Sungenis himself has admitted, "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 (GWW1, p. 226; emphasis mine).  Well the same exact thing may be said about the Hebrew idiom of speaking of the sun "going forth" and "going in", which also is clearly, "with respect to the Earth's horizon".  This is phenomenological language and as Pope Leo XIII insists, the Holy Spirit did not intend to teach anything about the “essential nature of the things of the physical universe” through the use of such phenomenological language.

In this vein I’d have recourse to another phenomenon that has been enlisted by geocentrists, namely, the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima. At Fatima, tens of thousands of people saw this event, as described by journalist Avelino de Almeida: "Before the astonished eyes of the crowd, whose aspect was biblical as they stood bare-headed, eagerly searching the sky, the sun trembled, made sudden incredible movements outside all cosmic laws — the sun 'danced' according to the typical expression of the people."

Here we have another miracle concerning the sun (and let me note at the outset that I do consider both the Fatima event and the event recorded in the book of Joshua to be miracles). The eyewitnesses indicated that from their vantage point the sun moved. But the fact is that this was not a universal phenomenon. It was a localized apparition. We know this because the only people who saw this phenomenon were those at Fatima and the Holy Father in Rome. No one else in the world reported witnessing this event. But the language used by the witnesses to describe the miracle, by itself, does not tell the reader whether this was a localized apparition or a universal event.

And this is precisely the point I was making in the essay—that is the nature of phenomenological language. To return to the text of Joshua, we can see that were this a localized apparition rather than a universal event the language would be the same. A poster on the Catholic Answers Forum put it well:

(1) If there was a natural explanation, then it wouldn't strictly be a miracle. (2) It certainly was a miracle. (3) In fact I believe it was the same sort of miracle that took place at Fatima.

Note, however, that in neither case is it necessary to assume that either the earth or the sun actually departed in any way from their ordinary motion. Why? Because in neither case were these miracles witnessed by the entire world. The miracle at Fatima was witnessed only by those present at Fatima, and by the Pope in Rome. Not a single other person in the entire world reported seeing the sun dance and fall towards the earth that day, which is a huge indication that the motion of the sun at Fatima was a localized vision, not a true physical displacement. Likewise with the miracle of Joshua: nobody else in the entire world reported seeing the sun stand still (or refuse to rise) for 24 hours. Not a single pagan culture existing in the world at that time recorded that event in their history. You know what that tells me? That Joshua's miracle of sun was a localized apparition, not a true physical cessation of any celestial motion. Now, am I denying that God could have moved the heavenly bodies in such a miraculous manner, if He had so chosen? No, I'm not denying that. I'm simply saying that, even though He could have, it certainly doesn't look like He did. Instead, as usual, He chose to be significantly more subtle. (

Two counter-arguments may be addressed briefly by way of anticipation. First, I anticipate that my reply will elicit yet another exaggerated appeal to a supposed “unanimous consent of the Fathers” on Joshua 10:13. The main thing to keep in mind when discussing this matter of the Fathers viz-a-viz geocentrism is that, as Popes Leo XIII, Pius XII, and John Paul II have made clear, geocentrism is not a matter of faith. Nor is it ever presented as such by any of the Fathers of the Church. The same writer on the Catholic Answers Forum summarizes well:

…providing quotes which prove that the Church Fathers personally held geocentrism (which is all John Salza does) is not the same as providing evidence that they held it to be a a [sic] revealed truth of the Christian faith. In fact, none of the Church Fathers (much less all of them) ever made such a claim. Again, let me point out that when Saint Thomas argues for geocentrism in the Summa, he argues based on the observations of a natural scientist and a pagan: Ptolemy. Not a single Church Father. Not a single passage of Scripture. Ptolemy. Geocentrism is a question for natural science, not a truth of the Catholic faith. (

Second, there are those who claim that various alleged accounts of a "missing day" in certain ancient cultures and even "proven" by NASA. This notion was popularized by one Harry Rimmer in 1936. Rimmer put forward no substantial evidence for his assertions and there as been much written subsequently to undermine his credibility. See here, here, and here, for just a few sources. As for the various accounts brought forth from other cultures, any accounts of an allegedly common event would have to be documented as accurate and shown to present the event as having occurred on exactly the same day, otherwise the "evidence" would be useless to establishing anything more than a local apparition. Suffice to say that if one examines these alleged witnesses closely, it turns out that they are highly variable and conflicting. Thus their combined testimony does nothing to establish the events related by Joshua 10:13 as a global and indeed cosmic event.

As the author of Galileo Was Wrong states:

God’s omnipotence has no limits. There are innumerable ways God can accomplish the task at hand if and when the normal laws which govern the universe are set aside to make room for God’s divine ingenuity (GWW2, p. 66).

That is correct and thus a Catholic is not bound to any specific understanding about how God wrought the miracle related in Joshua 10:13f. But this passage by no means necessarily implies, let alone proves, a geocentric universe. ]



johnmartin said...


I've made a response to your article here -

You are welcome to respond in due course on your own site and inform me of such by making a short comment on this article combox. I will receive your comment via email and then proceed to view your response.

Have a good new year.


Dave Armstrong said...

Hi David,

Great work!

I will cross-post your entire piece, so that it can get a wider reading.

I no longer allow geocentrist comments on my blog, though, so any such discussion will have to take place somewhere else (I can send them back here to comment if that is okay). They abused their privilege on my site royally.

A blessed new year to you and all the Palms!

Dave Armstrong said...


". . . claimed that, on that basic, any view expressed by the Fathers, . . ."

Should be "basis" right?

BenYachov said...

Shall-Lo my Boychiks!

Long time no see.

I think the problem is failing to differentiate between Unanimous Consent of the Fathers in regards to Faith & Morals vs the opinions of the Fathers as private scientists.

Of course Augustine taught that if science contradicts a particular interpretation of the scripture on the nature of the natural world then it is the interpretation that must yield.

nuff said.

ThePalmHQ said...

"johnmartin", thanks for your comment and for your response to my posting. I very much prefer this format of keeping the majority of the material on our own blogs--my responsibilities prevent me from engaging in lengthy combox exchanges. I will certainly post some thoughts on your response as I have opportunity. I have a few more blog postings on this topic in progress and may post some of those before I return to this specific topic. Happy New Year and Blessed Epiphany to you.

Thanks for your cross-posting, Dave, your good wishes and good catch on the typo ;o).

BenYachov, good to see you again! Both of your points are excellent. I have a posting planned that fleshes out those very points in more detail. But briefly, it's worth pointing out that those points address the common neo-geocentrist contention that, even if in the abstract Fathers and Doctors like St. Augustine and St. Thomas say that our interpretation of Scripture may need to be modified in light of natural observation, it does not apply in this case because "they were geocentrists". Even if we grant that they were (and there is no reason to deny it) the fact remains that they laid out these principles of biblical interpretation in light of what we might call natural philosophy, which have subsequently been taken up and promulgated by the Popes. Presumably they would have been consistent enough to apply them to themselves and their own views of the natural world vis-á-vis science.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

a) Geocentrism may fall as much within the scope of faith and morals as the fact that Jacob and Esau were born with the same horoscope, and for same reason.

b) Funny how non-geocentric Christians studiously avoid discussing the miraculous knowledge of the miracle he was accomplishing when it comes to Joshua but bring up things like "the sun sets", et c. which can indeed be explained as ... idiomatic expression.

A bit like Evolutionists when I take up the problem of Chromosome Fission gassing on about how Fusion (a non-problem, thus not at all the problem between ape and man) has been demonstrated in our chromosome 2.

c) in some later post you used the Newtonian centre of mass argument. But that argument presupposes a few non-clear and not-even-cleared things:
~that stars and such move out of intrinsic and intertrinsic causes such as mass, inertia and graviation, rather than by acts of voluntary causes such as God or angels,
~that we have any kind of idea of the masses on astronomic scales, which in part is a question of applying densities on unknown sizes, in part of applying causal logic on an unknown - see jsut above - causation,
~and, reason why volumes are regarded as known when in fact not outside say Pluto: using heliocentrism in the first place to determine stellar distances by trigonometry.

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

A blogpost of mine where I deal more in detail with one of your links:

Answering a Site that Ridicules Church Fathers On Geocentrism

thepalmhq said...

A few comments on Han's remarks above.

a) The Popes have said repeatedly that the Holy Spirit did not put information about “the essential nature of the things of the visible universe” or “details of the physical world” into sacred Scripture at all. It is thus fruitless to search there for what was never put there in the first place. You have said elsewhere that you don't find any hint of the geocentric controversy in Providentissimus Deus. Aside from the fact that the context makes geocentrism that best possible example of what Pope Leo XIII was talking about in that section of the encyclical, I submit that since the Pope was laying out general principles it's your burden to show that he did not mean to have those principles apply to geocentrism.

b) I do not deny that what occurred in the narrative of Joshua 10 was a miracle. What I do deny is that the language of that passage reveals some particular cosmological "solution". I don't think that Joshua dictated to God how to accomplish that miracle and the text does not say that he had any special "knowledge" of how God would do so.

c) Actually I do not use the center of mass argument. It's one of Bob Sungenis's favorite arguments in favor of neo-geocentrism, but it's been refuted soundly. See the links to Ken Cole's and Gary Hoge's refutations here:

As those gentlemen prove, there is absolutely no way, given what we observe, that the earth remains the unmoved and unmovable center of mass of the entire universe. If you make up for the deficiency of observed mechanisms that would allow this by appealing to things like the "dances of angels" then we are well outside of what Catholic scientists and theologians down through the ages have understood about the ordered nature of the universe and the scientific endeavor itself. With all due respect, that sort of response is yet more proof that neo-geocentrism ultimately boils down to an elaborate exercise in special pleading.

thepalmhq said...

Concerning "Answering a Site that Ridicules Church Fathers On Geocentrism", I'm sorry that you viewed my comments as in some way ridiculing the Fathers, even to the point of calling me "Mr Smartass".

The larger context of my remarks, as indicated by the last sentence quoted by you on your blog, is that Bob Sungenis has in the past stated that if he can find alleged errors in the Fathers on related matters, he can then dismiss their testimony on future conversion of the Jews. See e.g. Sungenis on Romans 11: Theological Bias in Biblical Exegesis at

My first intention was to point out this inconsistency. Sungenis wants to claim that there is a binding unanimous consensus of the Fathers on a matter of natural philosophy (geocentrism), despite there being many instances where the Fathers err on scientific matters. Why does his standard apply when he wants to deny special graces to the Jews, but cease to apply when his pet topic geocentrism?

But beyond that, my intention was not to ridicule. But it is certainly not disrespectful of the Fathers to point out when they make errors concerning details of the physical universe. Again, we don't go the Fathers for details of the physical world and we certainly don't expect them to have some special scientific knowledge beyond the best scientific observations of their day. What's more, I find no evidence that they viewed the cosmological details they discuss as being anything other than matters of natural philosophy. And it poses no problem at all for Catholics that on matters of natural philosophy the Fathers can err.

Nick said...

From a "philosophical" point of view, the idea that Earth, where God became Incarnate, is at the center of the universe is 'very fitting'. Likewise fitting is that no other planet did God do any of this.

From a Scriptural point of view, that Earth was created first, as Genesis states, again it makes sense that it is the center. Also, the Geo view makes the best sense of Joshua 10. (I don't see any problem with saying the Earth is a "foundation" and yet can rotate.)

The Patristic witness seems to testify more about natural/conventional thought than an aspect of the Deposit of Faith (i.e. a non-dogmatic Geo).

Assuming the 1633 document is genuine and accurately translated, this document and related Papal action via the Index favor Geo and hold a low view of Helio. But the underlying issue seemed more about not opening the door to mock Scripture than anything.

The main area of hesitancy for me though is in the realm of scientific experiments. It seems here that the Helio view is more easily demonstrated, though most of us were also trained since an early age at school to view the 'solar system' this way from the start. I get the impression the Geo side is more on the defensive here, which isn't favorable to it.

I don't see a strong case being made for Geo to be a matter of Faith, and the real concern seems to be holding off those who would reduce Scripture to a mere human document. That said, I also hold that it is fallacy and superfluous to appeal to the numerous testimonies of Scripture being Plenary Inerrant since faithful Catholic Helio's accept this. The fallacy is making an absolute equation of Plenary Inerrant with "wooden literalism" when such is manifestly contrary to the Faith. (i.e. the issue has nothing to do with the Dogma of Plenary Inerrancy, since Scripture can employ different mannerisms to describe real history/science.)

If I had to put a percentage, I'd say I lean Geo 60%, for fun.

Nick said...


I just came across something I think is important in this discussion; maybe you've seen it before.

Pope Benedict 15th in 1921 wrote an Encyclical that said this:

"though this earth on which we live may not be the centre of the universe as at one time was thought, it was the scene of the original happiness of our first ancestors, witness of their unhappy fall, as too of the Redemption of mankind through the Passion and Death of Jesus Christ."

This to me is significant because the Pope's teaching entails that geocentrism is (a) not a matter of faith, and (b) there is science making a reasonable case against geocentrism.

With that in mind, the only good argument for geocentrism is the philosophical argument based on 'fittingness'. But that is also very limited as far as pushing anything goes.

thepalmhq said...

Thanks for your comments, Nick. You make some excellent observations. A few quick thoughts....

With regard to philosophical "fittingness", I think that argument could go both ways. For isn't it a repeating theme of Scripture that God chooses the humble, the lowly, the unlikely, for His glorious own purposes? So then why couldn't God choose a rather out-of-the way place in the universe precisely to give Himself greater glory? Another thing I would note is that, although some Catholic theologians have made the fittingness argument throughout the centuries, I see little to no evidence of it in the Fathers (at least in the citations that the neo-geos have brought forth thus far) and it did not enter into the magisterial actions during the Galileo case at all.

You wrote, "The Patristic witness seems to testify more about natural/conventional thought than an aspect of the Deposit of Faith (i.e. a non-dogmatic Geo)." I agree with you completely. It's an observation that I will be developing more when I get to the installment in my series on the Fathers and geocentrism. I see little to no evidence that they considered it a matter of faith and considerable evidence that they considered it a matter of natural philosophy. That goes for St. Thomas too.

Finally (for now), I had indeed seen the citation from Pope Benedict XV before (see my piece here ), but you're right that it makes it quite clear that this is not a matter of Faith.