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.