The headlines flying around the internet this week are not what you'd expect to read about- a politically themed satire show on Comedy Central. They include stories like "Stephen Colbert, Ace Catechist", "Garry Wills: Not as Smart as Stephen Colbert", "Garry Wills, Apostate, vs. Stephen Colbert, Catechist" and "Stephen Colbert catechizes Garry Wills". Wow! You'd think Mr. Colbert has given up comedy and now works as a Catholic apologist on EWTN.
In truth, it's no laughing matter. A segment this week on The Colbert Report turned into a surprisingly insightful lesson on Catholic theology. Colbert invited Garry Wills on his show so Willis could discuss his new book, titled "Why Priests? A Failed Tradition". This made for an interesting dynamic, since both Colbert and Wills were educated at Northwestern University in the Chicago area, originally gaining prominence on Chicago's north side in their respective careers. Both have a vast knowledge of Catholicism and profess to be practicing Catholics, but disagree with the church on some social teachings, and both are married with three children. The similarities seem to end there, and otherwise they very much had a ying-yang dynamic on the show:
Colbert is an entertainer, comedian, and occasional actor, who specializes in satire and loves performing. He was a Theater Major at Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois, and he first performed professionally as an understudy for Steve Carell at Second City Chicago. His hobbies and interests include Catholic studies, science fiction, and The Lord of the Rings, all of three of which he loves to reference on his show. Although he usually portrays stereotypical Republican viewpoints in his shows, in reality Stephen Colbert describes himself as a liberal Democrat. Despite holding many liberal views, he nevertheless accepts most Catholic theology (how much is hotly debated due to Colbert notoriously being a "devil's advocate" in the sense that he loves to argue the opposite point of view of his own belief's on television), and considers himself to be an orthodox Catholic who is faithful to Catholic theology and believes what the faith teaches. He is not a theologian but he does teach CCD in his spare time. In 2011, Stephen Colbert was the commencement speaker for Northwestern University, and received an honorary degree.
Garry Wills, another Catholic educated at Northwestern and hailing from Chicago, couldn't more different. He is a trained classicist, and proficient in Greek and Latin. He has little interest in the glitzy Hollywood life, and his Evanston, Illinois home is "filled with books" dedicated to English literature, another containing Latin literature and books on American political thought, one hallway full of books on economics and religion, "including four shelves on St. Augustine", and another with shelves of Greek literature and philosophy. Wills began his career as a protégé of William F. Buckley, Jr. and was associated with political conservatism in America for many years. He was a long time writer for the National Review, and was regarded for a time as the 'token conservative' for the National Catholic Reporter, writing a book entitled: “Confessions of a Conservative”. Nevertheless, he has moved increasingly leftward in past decades, although he admitted that Obama’s presidency had been a 'terrible disappointment'. Wills attends Mass weekly at the Sheil Catholic Center in Northwestern University and states that he prays the rosary every day, even writing a book about the devotion ("The Rosary: Prayer Comes Around"), making it sound as though he is very devout to Catholic theology. But the funny thing is that Willis is extremely critical of Catholicism and rejects much of Catholic Church history and teaching. Dating back to the 1960s, he has denied the papacy (and is especially critical of papal infallibility), the priesthood, the sacraments, and especially with Holy Communion and the belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist. In fact, if it weren't for Garry Wills calling himself a Catholic and attending a Catholic university and praying the rosary, you'd probably assume he was a protestant.
This lead to a very interesting discussion when "Catholic" Garry Wills appeared on Stephen Colbert's show this week to hawk his seemingly very anti-Catholic book, "Why Priests? A Failed Tradition". Wills' appeal is that he unquestionably is seen as a "serious intellectual", but he "came across sounding pretty stupid" when Colbert began questioning his beliefs and poking holes in his statements.
At one point, he claimed that St. Augustine (whose name he mispronounced as “Augusteen,” like the Florida city) didn't believe that the bread and wine in communion literally become the body and blood of Jesus, and argued that Augustine “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 fired back “But Jesus said, ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’”, pointing out from the context of the bible passage, Jesus clearly meant it in a literal fashion. Wills responded: “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.’”, and then concluded that the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation must be impossible because Jesus couldn't become the bread and be in the room talking to them at the same time. Colbert then asks Willis if he believes Jesus to be God, which Wills affirmed that he does. "Then how could God be in heaven and earth at the same time?" asked Colbert. "It’s a mystery" replies Wills, yet he refused to believe that Jesus could be in Eucharist and sitting at the table at the same time, offering only: "It’s a fake.”
In addition to claiming that he dislikes priests because priests “continue to pretend to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, which doesn’t happen”, the "former seminarian" Garry Wills said the priesthood itself had no authority at all. Wills claimed there is no evidence of priesthood in the New Testament, and that priests are an unbiblical invention. Colbert then asked what we should do about all the existing priests. "So you’d rather that there be no priests at all?” Wills answered: “Yes.” Colbert then pressed him on this and concluded that logically Wills must want to eliminate clergy all together: “So you’d like it to go Benedict XVI to Nobody the First?” "Very good idea,” answered Wills.
The problem Garry Wills had during the interview was that he could continually claim the Catholic Church was in error, but at no point could he defend his positions with any historic evidence of the Catholic faith. Nor could he refute any of Stephen Colbert's jabs pointing out that he was completely off when it came to Augustine’s views on the Eucharist (there are multiple references to the Real Presence in Augustine's writings), his dismissal of the evidence for the Catholic Church's position in the book of Hebrews, or that his "Catholic" arguments relied on thoroughly Protestant idiosyncrasies. As one internet poster noted after watching the interview online: "Mr. Wills said he is a Catholic, but [it was like saying] "I'm a baseball player, but I don't believe you should be out with three strikes. It should be four strikes." Wills clearly identifies with Protestant theology, but self-identifies as Catholic for the obvious reason that if he were a Protestant, he wouldn't be in the news, and nobody would take an interest in his book. By marketing himself as a Catholic, Garry Wills is able to market his writing about where the Catholic Church is wrong.
Despite being first and foremost an entertainer who provides a daily dose of comedy, Stephen Colbert is very well versed in orthodox Catholic teachings and was able to reach more "average Americans" with Catholic catechesis than almost any figure in the media. Hence the headlines about Colbert's "Ace Catechist" interview were essentially correct. Wills was not able to rely on historic evidence, so the arguments he offered were essentially identical to protestant fundamentalists who decry the priesthood and the Eucharist as embarrassing to Christianity. It's not every day that a professional comedian ends up looking far more knowledgeable and far more personable than an intellectual philosophical writer, especially when the format is an informal five minute interview on a television show.
With Colbert coming from a traditional Democrat background and Wills coming from a traditional Republican background, this week's event also shattered the myth that religious beliefs must coincide with political alignment or that there's some grand conspiracy to make people have to vote for every Republican on the ballot to be recognized as "good Catholics". Instead, the back and forth between Colbert and Wills this week reminded me of why I enjoy The Colbert Report so much, but can't stand the bitter, nasty tone of Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Stephen Colbert was part of The Daily Show in its original incarnation under Craig Kilborn, when it really was a satire of over the top "news" shows that try to present themselves as "the most important thing on television", as opposed to Stewart's version of the show that actually tries to be one. There's something very disarming about Stephen Colbert's laid back approachable demeanor and quick wit that makes him accessible to the average Joe Six Pack. When he left the Daily Show, one of the few reasons left to watch the show died. On the Colbert Report, it's not so much about "news" that it is in showing truth about the human condition.
This week we had two very different people from Northwestern University making statements about Catholicism, but it was clear only one was successful at swaying viewers to his perspective.