CHICAGO — Some people believe the world literally revolves around them. It's a belief born not of selfishness but faith.
A small group of conservative Roman Catholics is pointing to a dozen biblical verses and the church's original teaching as proof the Earth is the center of the universe, the view that prompted Galileo Galilei's clash with the church four centuries ago.
The relatively obscure movement has gained a following among some Catholics who find comfort in knowing there are still staunch defenders of original church doctrine.
"This subject is, as far as I can see, an embarrassment to the modern church because the world more or less looks upon geocentrism or someone who believes it in the same boat as the flat Earth," said James Phillips of Cicero, Ill.
Phillips attends Our Lady Immaculate Catholic Church in Oak Park, a parish run by the Society of St. Pius X, a group that rejects most of the modernizing reforms the Vatican II council made from 1962 to 1965.
By challenging modern science, the proponents of a geocentric universe are challenging the very church they seek to serve and protect.
"I have no idea who these people are. Are they sincere, or is this a clever bit of theater?" asked Brother Guy Consolmagno, the curator of meteorites and spokesman for the Vatican Observatory.
Indeed, those promoting geocentrism argue that heliocentrism, the centuries-old consensus among scientists that the Earth revolves around the sun, is simply a conspiracy theory 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 lone Don Quixote, as illustrated by the hundreds of curiosity seekers, skeptics and supporters at a conference last fall titled "Galileo Was Wrong. The Church Was Right" just off the University of Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind.
Astrophysicists at Notre Dame didn't appreciate the group hitching its wagon to the prestige of America's flagship Catholic university and resurrecting a concept that's extinct for a reason.
"It's an idea whose time has come and gone," astrophysics professor Peter Garnavich said. "There are some people who want to move the world back to the 1950s when it seemed like a better time. These are people who want to move the world back to the 1250s. I don't really understand it at all."
Garnavich said the theory of geocentrism violates what he thinks should be a strict separation of church and science. One answers why, the other answers how, and never the twain should meet, he said.
But supporters of the theory contend there is scientific evidence to support geocentrism, just as supporters say that there is evidence to support the six-day story of creation.
There is proof in Scripture that the Earth is the center of the universe, Sungenis said. Among many verses, he cites Joshua 10:12-14: "And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, while the nation took vengeance on its foe. ... The sun halted in the middle of the sky; not for a whole day did it resume its swift course."
But Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., said the Bible is silent on geocentrism.
"There's a big difference between looking at the origin of the planets, the solar system and the universe and looking at presently how they move and how they are interrelated," Ham said. "The Bible is neither geocentric or heliocentric. It does not give any specific information about the structure of the solar system."
Just as Ham challenges the foundation of natural history museums, Sungenis challenges planetariums, most notably the Vatican Observatory.
Consolmagno said the very premise of going after Galileo illustrates the theory's lack of scientific credibility.
"Of course, we understand the universe in a far more nuanced way than Galileo did 400 years ago," he said. "And I would hope that the next 400 years would see just as much development."