Fringe ‘Catholics’ in the news, again

I realize that stories about Galileo Galilei and the Vatican are like catnip to some journalists who are anxious to portray the Catholic Church as several centuries behind the time on this or that cultural issue.

However, it helps to know when you are writing about the Roman Catholic Church and when you are not.

So let’s start this post with a parable that’s built on a journalistic metaphor.

Let’s say that a bunch of retired journalists from the Los Angeles Times got together and, with a few converts who yearn for the good old journalism days in that great city, form a news organization that we will call, oh, the Society of St. Otis Chandler. This group rents itself some printing presses and, using a template of a vintage masthead of the Los Angeles Times in 1965 or so, start publishing a newspaper that they call — wait for it — the Los Angeles Times.

This makes some people confused, especially when the leaders of this new-old Los Angeles Times start making pronouncements that directly contradict those made by the leaders of the real Los Angeles Times.

Is everyone following this? Good. Hang on.

Now, the leaders of the actual Times clearly have the right — like it or not — to say who works for the real Times and who is aligned with this pretend Times. So how would these editors feel if major news operations kept writing stories about statements by the Society of St. Otis Chandler and calling its members Los Angeles Times journalists in good standing?

Now, unfortunately, there is one more complication. Suppose that some of these splinter Times people decide that the leadership of the Society of St. Otis Chandler have not gone far enough. Suppose that they start yet another group, one that claims that the leaders of the new-new Los Angeles Times are not only wrong on key issues, but that they are not even journalists in the first place.

Now, do you think mainstream journalists would go so far as to say that these people, the members of the splinter group that left the larger splinter Times, are, in fact, Los Angeles Times journalists?

I sort of doubt it.

All of this brings us to a new Chicago Tribune story that ran in the Los Angeles Times under the following headline:

A few Catholics still insist Galileo was wrong

They say Earth is the center of the universe, embracing church teachings of four centuries ago

OK, so that says “Catholics” in the headline, which is bad, but it might have been hard to get the proper adjective into the headline (unless “Splinter Catholics still insist Galileo was wrong” would fit, which is likely with several skinny letters in the mix).

However, the story then opens like this:

Some people believe the world revolves around them — and their belief is born not of selfishness but of faith.

A few conservative Roman Catholics are pointing to a dozen Bible verses and the church’s original teachings as proof that Earth is the center of the universe, the view that was at the heart of the church’s clash with Galileo Galilei four centuries ago. The relatively obscure movement has gained a following among those who find comfort in knowing there are still staunch defenders of early church doctrine.

A few paragraphs later, readers learn that this belief is held by some members of “a parish run by the Society of St. Pius X, which rejects most of the modernizing reforms made by the Vatican II council.”

The communion status of members of this society are complex, to say the least. To simply call them “conservative Roman Catholics” is way too simplistic.

But later things get worse.

Those promoting geocentrism argue that heliocentrism, or the centuries-old consensus among scientists that Earth revolves around the sun, is a conspiracy 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 Don Quixote. Hundreds of curiosity seekers, skeptics and supporters attended a conference last fall titled “Galileo Was Wrong. The Church Was Right” near the University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind.

Since Sungenis is the pivotal voice in the story, it’s logical to ask this basic question: If Robert Sungenis is “no Don Quixote,” who is he? Also, what is his relationship to Rome? Is he, in fact, a conservative Roman Catholic, as in a Catholic who is a conservative who is in communion with the Church of Rome?

That turns out to be a rather complex and controversial subject, as even the most cursory glance at the following Google search will demonstrate — click here, if you dare.

So what we have here is an interesting story about a very, very small group of believers who claim to be the real Roman Catholics. However, what do they have to do with life in today’s Catholic Church, as in the real one led by Pope Benedict XVI?

That’s a good question. Someone should have asked it, before printing this story in the real Los Angeles Times or the real Chicago Tribune.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Kate

    This is the sort of piece that feeds the feeling that major newspapers are out to ‘get’ the Catholic Church with deliberate smears. It’s just so hard for an educated believer to read something like this and imagine that the journalist who wrote it, fact checkers, and editors were all completely ignorant of the existence of various splinter groups that call themselves ‘Catholic’, or that if they were aware, they were ignorant of the importance of making that kind of distinction.

    So what is it – ignorance combined with really really poor journalistic skills (surely doing basic background research is first year journalism), or malice in making the Church look bad?

    I imagine it is a combination – willful ignorance and the lack of any desire or inclination to look critically at a story that reinforces the journalist’s own prejudices.

  • RomanitasPress

    James Philips merely attends the SSPX’s chapel in Chicago; he does not represent the views of the priestly congregation.

    Also, the issue of the theory of heliocentrism vs. geocentrism is a scientific matter, and not of doctrine, thus Catholics are not required to give assent to either idea. This is why Galileo was put on trial: because he wanted the Church to proclaim his scientific theory as doctrine; James Philips et al are trying to do the same.

  • Romulus

    The communion status of members of this society are complex, to say the least.

    Indeed. Someone at the Tribune should have known that, since the SSPX is in a canonically irregular position with respect to the Catholic Church, it has no “parishes”, anywhere.

  • Martha

    Could somebody please inform this ignorant Papist as to when the Pope (and which Pope it was, when) declared either Geocentrism or Heliocentrism an official dogma of the Church, to be believed upon pain of excommunication?

    Of all the things to pick up on as to what makes a dissident Catholic, this is rather like saying that the SSPX has declared that the Church must return to saying that hazelnuts and hazelnuts alone are the Offical Nut of Roman Catholicism, and those who consume peanuts, almonds, walnuts or Brazil nuts are schismatics.

    It is entirely possible to be a Roman Catholic and still hold wacky opinions on astronomy. Robert Sugenis has other problems as to whether or not he is still a Catholic, and if he hasn’t formally defected, it’s a tricky one to answer. His alleged anti-Semitism, however, puts him into direct conflict with a couple of recent Popes and so he’s in trouble there.

    Your example of the two “Los Angeles Times” amuses me, not least because if anyone did try that, the first announcement would hardly have been made before the real L.A. Times would have the solicitors’ letters threatening to sue them down to their underwear sent out, yet in cases like this and the other extreme of the WomenPriests, the papers like to say “Well, if they say they’re Catholics, we’re in no position to comment one way or the other”.

  • Mike Hickerson

    First, what’s the news hook here? I remember seeing a booth from a geocentrism group at large Christian conference nearly ten years ago, and I’m sure groups like this have been around a lot longer than that.

    Second, why is this reporter so willing to take Sungenis’ claims at face value? Forget the geocentrism – I’m talking about this:

    Prior to Galileo, the church was in full command of the world, and governments and academia were subservient to her.

    Oh, really? Galileo was born in 1564 – which was 47 years after Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door. Galileo’s dispute with the Pope over heliocentrism coincided with the Thirty Years’ War, hardly the best example of the Catholic Church’s “full command of the world.” If Sungenis pines for a time when the Roman Catholic Church was undisputed lord of the manor, he’s going to have to go back a lot further than Galileo (if such a time ever even existed – there’s a pretty long list of scholars and kings who were willing to challenge the authority of the church hierarchy).

    Though it doesn’t relate to the religious content, I’m disappointed that the reporter never bothers to point out that the heliocentric model was never Galileo’s to begin with, even though he became its most famous advocate. The model was created by Copernicus over 50 years before Galileo was born, which is why we now refer to Copernican Revolutions when a long-established theory is overturned, not “Galilean Revolutions”.

  • Gabriel Austin

    Current journalism is the fruit of survey courses – studying without working at it – thus the ease with which it broadcasts its bromides and errors. It is too much work to investigate a story. It is much simpler to mix up a tale using the colors one learned in “Introductory [fill in blank]“. It is unkind to reproach the ignorant for their ignorance.
    Anent geo-centrism, Einstein commented “It all depends on how you look at it”.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “So what we have here is an interesting story about a very, very small group of believers who claim to be the real Roman Catholics. However, what do they have to do with life in today’s Catholic Church, as in the real one led by Pope Benedict XVI?”

    Since there’s explicit admission that it’s an interesting story that at least some readers will find interesting, then it’s good enough to publish.

  • tmatt

    This is not the place to debate or define geocentrism and why it’s the bee’s knees.

    Stick to the journalism issues.

  • kyle

    Among the more easily overlooked problems with this article is that it uncritically accepts and propagates in the editorial voice that geocentrism was “early church doctrine.” That is, to put it mildly, a highly debatable assertion. Does the actual Magisterium of the Church that Catholics believe is given the task of preserving the Church’s doctrine say that? That might be a voice worth including in the story. Instead they asked a Protestant who runs a creation museum.

    And nowhere, unfortunately from literally no one in the story do we get an articulation of the highly developed and beautiful actual teaching of the Catholic Church on the relationship between faith and reason. That is literally the question underlying this entire story, it’s something about which the Church has spoken repeatedly and clearly and authoritatively and forcefully, and the reporter acts both by what is included and what is excluded as if she(?) is utterly unfamiliar with any of it.

    Small wonder most readers are also utterly unfamiliar with this.

  • Roberto

    Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic Monthly had the best take to this kind of “journalism” I’ve ever come across: in reaction to some “controversy” about some drunk Jewish kids making racist remarks he wrote “Man listen, hand me a fifth of Henny, a video camera, and an hour, and I’ll show you Negroes claiming that God’s messenger lives in a space-ship orbiting the earth.”


  • Spencerian

    Mr. Sungenis’s teaches fall way outside those of other Catholic apologists, such as those in the lay apostalate, Catholic Answers. A Google search on his name clearly shows a history of questionable fact finding neither in line with scientific theory or Catholic theology.

    That said, yes, this article is quite a straw man of the Catholic Church’s view on Galileo and his findings. Many in the Church felt Galileo’s work had merit but did not answer key questions of science to prove heliocentrism: Specifically, why the stars didn’t appear to move, though the planets, sun and moon did (parallax). Galileo decided to insult his friend, the Pope, others in the Church held too closely to Scripture, many Church scientists waited for more proof. Everybody overreacted. Pope JPII made an apology for that reaction.

    The Society of St. Pius X is not fully yet in communion with Rome again. Even if they were, they do not speak for the Holy See. Just because an apologist and a priest or two chat about something is not an official statement “from the Vatican.”

  • Julia

    I couldn’t get the link to work, so here’s one that is operational.,0,3264179.story?track=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+latimes%2Fnews%2Fnationworld%2Fnation+%28L.A.+Times+-+National+News%29

    [don't know how to use the "link" button]

    Other than thinking the church had actual dogma that the earth was the center of the universe, it was not a bad article. I saw advertisements about the conference at various Catholic websites months ago and wondered who the heck was behind it. Glad to know a bit about it.

    Interesting to learn that not only do the astrophysicists at Notre Dame and the spokesman for the Vatican observatory think this is wacky, but so does the Creation Museum.

    In addition to what RomanitasPress said, I’ve read in a number of credible places that Galileo got himself in hot water, not for saying the earth goes around the sun, but for pontificating in public on how he thought heliocentrism affects what is in Scripture. The mathematician Pope himself agreed that it looks like the earth goes around the sun – he & Galileo were long-time friends and did some scanning of the heavens together before he was elected Pope. But the Church likes to digest new thinking, and is averse to making hasty pronouncements on how this or that new piece of knowledge may or may not affect how the Bible is to be understood. Galileo was impatient and evidently a bit of a grandstander. Copernicus, the Polish priest who first proposed heliocentrism, never got himself in trouble with the church.

  • Julia

    Mike Hickerson:

    In addition to problems with Luther and the Thirty Years’ War occupying the Pope; coming from the East was the first attempt of the Ottomans to take Vienna in 1529 and the epic naval battle for control of the Mediterranean against the Ottomans at Lepanto in 1571.

  • Patrick

    What sort of bugs me is that these journalists won’t also cover things like Pope Benedict XVI basically criticizing four hundred years of western capitalism:

    That got *nothing* in the New York Times (don’t know about the others), but I would think it’s controversial enough for Church to officially denounce profits-over-people economics, which has after all been predominant in the West for a long time.

  • RomanitasPress

    This press release was just posted on SSPX.ORG:

    PLATTE CITY, MO (8-30-2011) A recent news report implied that the Priestly Society of St. Pius X promotes the scientific theory of geocentrism as a Catholic teaching based upon the Bible. The SSPX holds no such position.

    The Church’s magisterium teaches that Catholics should not use Sacred Scripture to assert explanations about natural science, but may in good conscience hold to any particular cosmic theory. As a religious congregation of the Catholic Church, the SSPX holds to these principles and does not teach any solar scientific theory. click here to read more:

    Rather interesting information about the nature of Sacred Scripture, and the relation of it (and the Faith) to scientific theory.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Thank you for noting that the SSPX is not in Communion with the Catholic Church. It’s not that complicated a matter, although it seems to confuse most journalists.

    Here’s a different take on the Galileo affair. It appears he wasn’t just challenging non-existent Church dogma, but the settled science of the time, who’s supporters included Aristotle.

  • The young fogey

    Geocentrism, as laughable as it is, is OK according to Catholic doctrine, which works with either it or heliocentrism. Neither has never been been doctrine itself. The writer probably wants to smear the church.

    The SSPX has a interesting niche in the church world. Neither official nor vagante (because in principle they’ve never said they’re a separate church – unthinkable according to what they believe). They’re ‘irregular’. Real bishops and priests but they don’t claim jurisdiction. Only the Pope can give them that. (So for example Bishop Williamson never claimed to be the diocesan Bishop of Winona.) They say the state of emergency in the Catholic Church supplies them the jurisdiction to absolve penitents and officiate at weddings.

  • The young fogey

    P.S. A retro newspaper? Sign me up! Are they hiring? :)

  • The Learned Cat

    Los Angeles Times is a registered trademark. “Catholic” is not. Many ecclesial communities call themselves Catholic, some of whom are in communion with Rome and others who are not.

    The mainstream media is under no obligation to reserve the word “Catholic” for groups in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, anymore than it is obliged to reserve the word “chicken” for Chicken-of-the-Sea tuna fish.

  • MikeL

    The mainstream media is under no obligation to reserve the word “Catholic” for groups in communion with the Roman Catholic Church…

    I suppose one might also say the mainstream media is under no obligation to make their reporting as accurate and understandable as possible.

  • Ed Mechmann

    I wonder if Bill Keller will add this to his list of questions for candidates?

  • tmatt

    Learned Cat:

    You are right about the word “Catholic” and my post concedes that, even though the headline was confusing and did not need to be.

    You are dead wrong on the issue of whether a group that clearly includes splinter-group believers and schismatics can accurate be called “conservative Roman Catholics” — implying that (a) they are in Communion with Rome and (b) conservative, in terms of loyalty to the hierarchy and Catholic doctrine.

  • MarkAA

    I’m pleased and frankly amazed that Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis was treated in a manner that isn’t insulting. When an article isn’t about AIG, he gets quoted like he might know something useful.

    AIG publishes a wealth of scholarly material on its website ( that more religion (and science) writers should check out when delving into creation science topics. Most of it is written by scientists with PHds in physical sciences.

  • Julia


    “conservative Roman Catholics” — implying that (a) they are in Communion with Rome

    Here’s the problem with that. Catholics of the Chaldean Rite are usually identified as Chaldean Catholics. But they are in Communion with Rome, as are the Maronites and Greek-Byzantine Catholics, among others. Are readers to think that these Eastern groups aren’t in communion with Rome like the Latin Rite Catholics, since they aren’t given the “Roman” modifier, too?

  • Michael O.

    Julia – just because one group is in communion* with Rome does not forbid other groups from also being so. Same as if I said people from Dallas, and you were to assume they were from Texas, but that wouldn’t mean people from Houston weren’t. There’s nothing wrong with what TMatt said.

    * Communion is capitalized when talking about the sacrament, but not here in this sense.