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Garry Wills: Not as Smart as Stephen Colbert

Pitiful, just pitiful.

That was my reaction on watching this five-minute clip from The Colbert Report, in which host Stephen Colbert talks with Garry Wills about his new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition. The book was published last week.

Colbert is a Catholic but not, so far as I can tell, a completely orthodox one. Still, he professes to believe the faith. Wills doesn’t believe—at least not in any substantive sense—yet he continues to market himself as a Catholic.

In the introduction to his book Wills says, “I shall be arguing here that priesthood, despite the many worthy men who have filled that office, keeps Catholics at a remove from other Christians and at a remove from the Jesus of the Gospels, who was a biting critic of the priests of his day. To make this argument, I must consider the claim that has set priests apart from all other human beings, their unique power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. On this claim the entire sacramental structure of the medieval church was built up. The priesthood stands or falls with that claim. I mean to examine it here dispassionately, thoroughly, historically.”

However dispassionate he may be in his book, he isn’t dispassionate when interviewed by Colbert. Wills says priests “continue to pretend to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, which doesn’t happen.” He claims that Augustine (whose name he mispronounces as “Augusteen,” as in the Florida city) “said that it was ridiculous to think that we eat God, that we digest God, that we excrete God. He said the body of Christ is us, the people.”

Colbert: “But Jesus said, ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’”

Wills: “He said that, and there he was, in his body. He said, ‘Eat this bread. It’s my body.’ He didn’t say, ‘Take a chunk out of my arm.’”

Colbert asks Wills if he believes Jesus to be God, and Wills says he does. Then how could God be in heaven and earth at the same time? It’s a mystery, replies Wills. And so is the Eucharist, insists Colbert. “No,” says Wills. “It’s a fake.”

Colbert turns the discussion back to the priesthood. Wills claims there is no evidence of a priesthood in the New Testament. (Closing my eyes, I thought I was listening to my one-time Fundamentalist debate opponent Bart Brewer, a former Discalced Carmelite priest.)

Colbert: “So you’d rather that there be no priests at all?”

Wills: “Yes.”

Then what about popes? No popes either, says Wills. “So you’d like it to go Benedict XVI to Nobody the First?”

“Very good idea,” answers Wills.

Wills has never been a solid Catholic, as shown as early as his third book, Politics and Catholic Freedom (1964). What rankles is that he postures as a Catholic while adhering to so little of the Faith. He is able to do this because he is found useful by the secular media.

Worse, Wills appears in the video with arguments no stronger than those offered by everyday Fundamentalists who decry the priesthood and the Eucharist. You can’t help feeling embarrassed for him.

Colbert is a comedian, not a theologian. He often makes use of Catholic shtick on his show. It’s hard to tell how much of the Faith he really accepts. At least he presents himself as a fairly orthodox believer. In the video he sometimes doesn’t know how to respond to something Wills says, such as the latter’s claim that Augustine didn’t believe in the Real Presence (false: There are multiple references to the Real Presence in Augustine’s writings).

Still, the comedian ends up looking far more knowledgeable and far more personable than the much-touted (by the Left) Wills. See for yourself. 

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