True Catholicism, or why I love Fr. John Gother

1. Catholicism, Misrepresented
One of the frequent problems facing Catholics defending the Faith is that those attacking it really aren’t. They’re attacking some strange distortion of the Catholic Faith which, if true, would deserve to be attacked. Occasionally, this distorting is done willfully to advance one’s own theological agenda (as with the influential Centuriators of Magdeburg, whose distortions still taint debates on Church history), but the vast majority of the time, it’s simple ignorance. A fair number of non-Catholics are aware that their knowledge of Catholicism is lacking, and turn to a seemingly sensible place: Catholics… or at least, those who call themselves Catholics. Not infrequently, these individuals are poor stewards of the Faith they claim to hold, failing to live up to 1 Peter 3:15-16. As a result, in the words of Abp. Fulton Sheen, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church — which is, of course, quite a different thing. “At times, this ignorance can be dangerous, and it’s always tragic.

For this reason, I thank God for people like Fr. John Gother. Raised a strict Presbyterian in England during the reign of the viciously anti-Catholic dictator Oliver Cromwell, Gother converted, studied in Lisbon, became a priest in 1675, and returned to England in 1681. In 1685 (not 1665, as is sometimes wrongly asserted, based upon a typo in the Catholic Encyclopedia), Gother wrote his most famous work, A Papist Misrepresented: or, A two-fold character of popery, the one, containing a sum of the superstitions, idolatries, cruelties, treacheries, and wicked principles laid to their charge, the other, laying open that religion which those termed papists own and profess. The book, for what should be obvious reasons, is usually just referred to as “A Papist Misrepresented.” (The title above is a link with lots of options for reading it: I’d suggest this one).

The goal of the book was to lay out what Catholics actually believe, and I think Fr. Gother did a fantastic job of it. Starting with the Bible and moving through Church history, Gother points out how frequently the Christian position is misrepresented by Her opponents, and how Christians – and even Christ Himself – are slandered for positions they’ve not really taken. Responding to the claim that the Catholic Church is the Church of the Antichrist and the Whore of Babylon, Gother cleverly notes Christ’s words from Matthew 10:25, “It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub,c]”> how much more the members of his household!” If we weren’t being slandered, we’d have something to worry about!

2. A Sample Misrepresentation, and its Correction
Here’s sort of the taste of the comparisons Gother makes, from p. 17-18:

The Papist misrepresented makes gods of dead men: such as are departed hence, and are now no more able to hear, or understand his necessities. And though God be so good as to invite all to come to him, and to apply themselves to their only and infinite Mediator Jesus Christ; yet so stupid is he, that neglecting, and as it were, passing by both God and his own Son, and all their mercies, he betakes himself to his Saints, and there pouring forth his prayers, he considers them as his mediators and redeemers, and expects no blessing but what is to come to him by their merits, and through their hands; and thus, without scruple or remorse, he robs God of his honour.

Sound familiar? If you’re Catholic and have ever gotten into a discussion on the intercession of the Saints, it probably does. Certainly, GotQuestions presents the same misrepresentation of us Papists today: here claiming we “bypass” the ban against worshipping false gods, and here invoking, in the first three paragraphs, the same two verses (Hebrews 4:16, and 1 Timothy 2:5) which Gother alludes to above. Gother’s response to this misrepresentation is beautiful, but too long to type all of. Here’s a taste:

The Papist, truly represented, believes there is only one God, and that it is a most damnable idolatry to make gods of men either living or dead. His church teaches him indeed, (and he believes,) that it is good and profitable to desire the intercession of Saints reigning with Christ in heaven: but that they are gods, or his redeemers, he is no where taught; but detests all such doctrine. He confesses that we are all redeemed by the blood of Christ alone, and that he is our only Mediator of redemption: but as for mediators of intercession, (that is, such as we may lawfully desire to pray for us) he does not doubt but it is acceptable to God we should have many. Moses was such a mediator for the Israelites; Job for his three friends; Stephen for his persecutors. The Romans were thus desired by St. Paul to be his mediators; so were the Corinthians; so the Ephesians…

Brilliant. And while he writes incredibly long sentences, Gother manages to be surprisingly concise. It took me a much longer blog post to try and express just this much (plus, Gother includes a lot of Biblical examples I’d totally forgotten about, like Job). In response to criticisms of the Rosary as vain repetition, Gother points out Psalm 136, which says “His love endures forever” twenty-six times in as many verses.

3. The Twenty Anathemas
Gother ends his book with twenty proposed anathemas. It’s a pretty brilliant strategy: he’s strongly and undoubtedly condemned as anathema the very distortions of which Catholics were believed to hold:

I. CURSED is he who commits idolatry; who prays to images or relics, or worships them for God. R. Amen.

II. Cursed is every goddess worshipper, who believes the Virgin Mary to be any more than a creature; who worships her, or puts his trust in her more than God, who believes her above her Son, or that she can in any thing command him. R. Amen.

III. Cursed is he who believes the saints in heaven to be his redeemers; who prays to them as such; or who gives Gods honour to thorn, or to any creature whatsoever. R. Amen.

IV. Cursed is he who worships any breaden god, or makes gods of the empty elements of bread and wine. JR. Amen.

V. Cursed is he who believes that priests can forgive sins, whether the sinner repent or not; or that there is any power on earth or in heaven that can forgive sins without a hearty repentance, and serious purpose of amendment. R. Amen.

VI. Cursed is he who believes there is authority in the Pope, or any other person, that can give leave to commit sin ; or that for a sum of money can forgive him his sins. R. Amen.

VII. Cursed is he who believes, that independent of the merits and passion of Christ, he can obtain salvation by his own good works, or make condign [worthy] satisfaction for the guilt of his sins, or the eternal pains due to them. R. Amen.

VIII Cursed is he who condemns the word of God, or who hides it from the people, in order to keep them from the knowledge of their duty, and to preserve them in ignorance and error. R. Amen.

IX. Cursed is he who undervalues the word of God, or that, forsaking scripture, chooses rather to follow human traditions than it. R. Amen.

X. Cursed is he who leaves the commandments of God to observe the constitutions of men. R. Amen.

XI. Cursed is he who omits any of the ten commandments, or keeps the people from the knowledge of any one of them, to the end that they may not have occasion of discovering the truth. R. Amen.

XII. Cursed is he who preaches to the people in unknown tongues, such as they understand not, or uses any other means to keep them in ignorance. R. Amen.

XIII. Cursed is he who believes that the Pope can give to any, upon any occasion whatsoever, dispensations to lie or swear falsely; or that it is lawful for any at the last hour to protest himself innocent, in case he be guilty. R. Amen.

XIV. Cursed is he who encourages sin, or teaches men to defer the amendment of their lives on presumption of a death-bed repentance. R. Amen.

XV. Cursed is he that teaches men that they may be lawfully drunk on a Friday, or any other fasting day, though they must not taste the least bit of flesh. R. Amen.

XVI. Cursed is he who places religion in nothing but a pompous show, consisting only in ceremonies; and which teaches not the people to serve God in spirit and truth. R. Amen.

XVII. Cursed is he who loves or promotes cruelty; that teaches people to be bloody-minded, and to lay aside the meekness of Jesus Christ. R. Amen.

XVIII. Cursed is he who teaches it to be lawful to do any wicked thing, though it be for the interest and good of Mother Church; or that any evil action may be done that good may ensue from it. R. Amen.

XIX. Cursed are we, if amongst all those wicked principles and damnable doctrines commonly laid at our doors, any one of them be the faith of our Church; and cursed are we if we do not as heartily detest all those hellish practices as they that so vehemently urge them against us. R. Amen.

XX. Cursed are we, if in answering or saying Amen to any of these curses, we use any equivocations, or mental reservations; or do not assent to them in the common and obvious sense of the words. R. Amen.

It’s a beautiful thing to behold. Catholic apologetics at its finest: presenting the Catholic position, distinguishing it from the false position, and without the need to create a Protestant straw-man.

4. The Response
You might have thought that this would have put the matter to rest: that the Protestants reading it would say, “Oh, I see. Well, here are our problems with your actual position,” or perhaps, “I’d never thought of that! How utterly Biblical!” Nope. Instead, since Gother turned out to be a Papist himself, he couldn’t be trusted. Edward Stillingfleet, D.D., Anglican Bishop of Worcester, wrote a book with the audacious title “The Doctrines and Practices of the Church of Rome, Truly Represented” to correct Gother about what he and his Church really believe: or more accurately, to suggest that Gother’s baiting-and-switching his readers, if you will. Rather than answering the accurate Catholic position, Bp. Stillingfleet and others simply continued to attack the fake position, or hint that there was more than Gother was letting on. Or, as Stillingfleet puts it:

Because the anathemas he hath set down are not penned so plainly and clearly as to give any real satisfaction; but with so much art and sophistry, as if they were intended to beguile weak and unwary readers, who see not into the depth of these things, and, therefore, may think he hath done great matters in his anathemas, which, if they be strictly examined, they come to little or nothing;

For example, on pages 314-15, Stillingfleet takes on the second Anathema above. On face, it seems like a really great denunciation of the Protestant claim that Catholics think Mary is greater than God. But Stillingfleet’s mind spots a Papist plot, an idolatrous escape hatch:

“Cursed is he that honours her, or puts his trust in her more than in God.” So that if they honour her and trust in her but just as much as in God, they are safe enough. “Or that believes her to be above her Son.” But no anathema to such as suppose her to be equal to him.

Stunning. The fact that Gother answered the false position that Catholics think that Mary is greater than God by denying that Mary is greater than God means Catholics must think Mary and God are equal? For any Protestants reading this, let me propose Anathema XXI on anyone who thinks Mary and God are equal. Do I need to specify that this includes Christ as well?

Or again (on p. 314):

“Cursed is he that commits idolatry.” An unwary reader would think herein he disowned all real idolatry; but he doth not curse any thing as idolatry, but what himself thinks to be so. So again, “Cursed is he” (not that gives divine worship to images, but) “that prays to images or relics as gods, or worship them for gods.” So that if he doth not take the images themselves for gods, he is safe enough from his own anathema.

So the ban on idolatry only extends to worshiping images and relics, but not to giving “divine worship” to images. Of course, there’s no such thing as “giving divine worship” to something without worshiping it. That’s a concocted nuance to turn reputable actions, like praying for intercession, into quasi-idolatry. And Stillingfleet’s last sentence hints (but doesn’t explicitly say) that perhaps Catholics don’t worship statues of saints, but worship the saints themselves.

It’s almost a shame that a mind as sharp, and a heart as big, as Gother’s was lost on so many of his contemporaries. It’s my hope that this age will give rise to a new Gother, and that this time, he’s trusted a little bit more by his Protestant brothers in Christ.

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