Stephen Colbert vs. Garry Wills on the Real Presence: Guess Who Carried the Day? UPDATED

Hasn’t won a Pulitzer, but he has his moments.

I caught Stephen Colbert interviewing Pulitzer prize winning author Garry Wills when the following clip was posted by Rod Dreher of The American Conservative. I found it to be amazing not just because Wills seems to be outfoxed by the court jester who can quote the Letter to the Hebrews with the best of them, but because of Wills’ assertion that St. Augustine didn’t believe in the Real Presence.

Roll clip,


I’ve never read any of Wills’ works, but I’ve read enough of St. Augustine to know that his assertion rings hollow. A quick search on the interwebs reveals a treasure trove of quotes from Augustine’s oeuvre to make Joe Six-Pack pretty comfortable in deciding that I’ll stick with Augustine (and Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem, etc.) and ignore the self-deceiving sophistry of Wills.

Take a gander at the Augustine citations found on Early Christians on the Holy Eucharist, from the Apologetics Toolkit hosted by a website out of Columbia University. Here is the thought that Wills centered his comments around Augustine upon, assuming the rest of us are ignorant of the breadth of commentary on the subject written by the Doctor of Grace,

St. Augustine, Explanations on the Psalms, A.D. 392-418, [98, 9]:
`Unless he shall have eaten My flesh he shall not have eternal life. [John 6:54-55]‘ [Some] understood this foolishly, and thought of it carnally, and supposed that the Lord was going to cut off some parts of His Body to give them … But He instructed them, and said to them: `It is the spirit that gives life; but the flesh profits nothing: the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life’ [John 6:64]. Understand spiritually what I said. You are not to eat this Body which you see, nor to drink that Blood which which will be poured out by those who will crucify Me. I have commended to you a certain Sacrament; spiritually understood, it will give you life. And even if it is necessary that this be celebrated visibly, it must still be understood invisibly.

But goodness, gracious, Augustines’ thoughts upon the matter continue on, and on.

St. Augustine, Sermons, [227] A.D. 391-430:
… I promised you, who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the Sacrament of the Lord’s Table, which you now look upon and of which you last night were made participants. You ought to know what you have received, what you are going to receive, and what you ought to receive daily. That Bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ. Through that bread and wine the Lord Christ willed to commend His Body and Blood, which He poured out for us unto the forgiveness of sins. If you receive worthily, you are what you have received.

St. Augustine, Sermons, [272] A.D. 391-430:
What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the Body of Christ and the chalice the Blood of Christ. … How is the bread His Body? And the chalice, or what is in the chalice, how is it His Blood? Those elements, brethren, are called Sacraments, because in them one thing is seen, but another is understood. What is seen is the corporeal species, but what is understood is the spiritual fruit. … `You, however, are the Body of Christ and His members.’ If, therefore, you are the Body of Christ and His members, your mystery is presented at the table of the Lord, you receive your mystery. To that which you are, you answer: `Amen’; and by answering, you subscribe to it. For you hear: `The Body of Christ!’ and you answer: `Amen!’ Be a member of Christ’s Body, so that your `Amen’ may be the truth.

St. Augustine, Explanations on the Psalms, [33, 1, 10] A.D. 392-418:
`And he was carried in his own hands [3 Kgs 20:13 LXX? corrupted].’ But, brethren, how is it possible for a man to do this? Who can understand it? Who is it that is carried in his own hands? A man can be carried in the hands of another; but no one can be carried in his own hands. How this should be understood literally of David, we cannot discover; but we can discover how it was meant of Christ. For Christ was carried in His own hands, when, referring to His own Body, He said: `This is My Body.’ For He carried that Body in His hands.

St. Augustine, Explanations on the Psalms, [98, 9] A.D. 392-418:
And adore the footstool of His feet, because it is holy [Psalm 98:9, LXX 99:9]. . .In another place in the Scripture it says: `The heavens are my throne, but the earth is the footstool of My feet’ [Isa 66:1] Is it the earth, then, that He commands us to adore, since in this other place the earth is called the footstool of God’s feet? . . . I am put in jeopardy by such a dilemma (Anceps factus sum): I am afraid to adore the earth lest He that made heaven and earth condemn me; again, I am afraid not to adore the footstool of My Lord’s feet, but because the Psalm does say to me: `Adore the footstool of My feet.’ I ask what the footstool of His feet is; and Scripture tells me: `The earth is the footstool of my feet.’ Perplexed, I turn to Christ, because it is He whom I seek here; and I discover how the earth is adored without impiety, how without impiety the footstool of His feet is adored. For He received earth from earth; because flesh is from earth, and He took flesh from the flesh of Mary. He walked here in the same flesh, and gave us the same flesh to be eaten unto salvation. But no one eats that flesh unless he adores it ; and thus it is discovered how such a footstool of the Lord’s feet is adored; and not only do we not sin by adoring, we do sin by not adoring.

St. Augustine, The Trinity, [3, 4, 10] A.D. 400-416:
Paul was able to preach the Lord Jesus Christ by means of signs, in one way by his letters, in another way by the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood; for when we speak of the Body of Christ and of His Blood, certainly we do not mean Paul’s speaking, nor his parchments nor his ink, nor the meaning of the sounds issuing from his tongue, nor the signs of letters written on skins. By the Body and Blood of Christ we refer only to that which has been received from the fruits of the earth and has been consecrated by the mystical prayer, and has been ritually taken for our spiritual health in memory of what the Lord suffered for us.

St. Augustine, 172,2, circa 400 A.D.:
For the whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the Fathers: that it prayers for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, when they are commemorated in their own place in the sacrifice itself; and the sacrifice is offered also in memory of them on their behalf.

St. Augustine, “Homilies on the Gospel of John”, 26, 13, 417 A.D.:
O Sacrament of piety! O sign of unity! O Bread of love! He who desires life finds here a place to live in and the means to live by. Let him approach, let him believe, let him be incorporated so that he may receive life. Let him not refuse union with the members, let him not be a corrupt member, deserving to be cut off, nor a disfigured member to be ashamed of. Let him be a grateful, fitting and healthy member. Let him cleave to the body, let him live by God and for God. Let him now labor here on earth, that he may afterwards reign in heaven.

St. Augustine, The City of God, 10, 5; 10,20, c. 426:
The fact that our fathers of old offered sacrifices with beasts for victims, which the present-day people of God read about but do not do, is to be understood in no way but this: that those things signified the things that we do in order to draw near to God and to recommend to our neighbor the same purpose. A visible sacrifice, therefore, is the sacrament, that is to say, the sacred sign, of an invisible sacrifice. . . . Christ is both the Priest, offering Himself, and Himself the Victim. He willed that the sacramental sign of this should be the daily sacrifice of the Church, who, since the Church is His body and He the Head, learns to offer herself through Him.

Here’s another from Augustines’ Sermon 81,

On the words of the Gospel, John 6:53 , Except you eat the flesh, etc., and on the words of the apostles. And the Psalms. Against the Pelagians.

Delivered at the Table of the Martyr St. Cyprian, the 9th of the Calends of October—23 Sept., on the Lord’s day.

1. We have heard the True Master, the Divine Redeemer, the human Saviour, commending to us our Ransom, His Blood. For He spoke to us of His Body and Blood; He called His Body Meat, His Blood Drink. The faithful recognise the Sacrament of the faithful. But the hearers what else do they but hear? When therefore commending such Meat and such Drink He said, Except you shall eat My Flesh and drink My Blood, you shall have no life in you; (and this that He said concerning life, who else said it but the Life Itself? But that man shall have death, not life, who shall think that the Life is false), His disciples were offended, not all of them indeed, but very many, saying within themselves, This is an hard saying, who can hear it? But when the Lord knew this in Himself, and heard the murmurings of their thought, He answered them, thinking though uttering nothing, that they might understand that they were heard, and might cease to entertain such thoughts. What then did He answer? Does this offend you? What then if you shall see the Son of Man ascend up where He was before? What means this? Does this offend you? Do ye imagine that I am about to make divisions of this My Body which you see; and to cut up My Members, and give them to you? ‘What then if you shall see the Son of Man ascend up where He was before?’ Assuredly, He who could ascend Whole could not be consumed. So then He both gave us of His Body and Blood a healthful refreshment, and briefly solved so great a question as to His Own Entireness. Let them then who eat, eat on, and them that drink, drink; let them hunger and thirst; eat Life, drink Life. That eating, is to be refreshed; but you are in such wise refreshed, as that that whereby you are refreshed, fails not. That drinking, what is it but to live? Eat Life, drink Life; you shall have life, and the Life is Entire. But then this shall be, that is, the Body and the Blood of Christ shall be each man’s Life; if what is taken in the Sacrament visibly is in the truth itself eaten spiritually, drunk spiritually. For we have heard the Lord Himself saying, It is the Spirit That quickens, but the flesh profits nothing. The words that I have spoken unto you, are Spirit and Life. But there are some of you, says He, that believe not. Such were they who said, This is a hard saying, who can hear it? It is hard, but only to the hard; that is, it is incredible, but only to the incredulous.

There’s more, you know. Would you like for me to quote St. Thomas Aquinas too? Sigh.

The third Sacrament is the Holy Eucharist. Its matter is wheaten bread and wine from the grape mixed with a little water so that the water becomes part of the wine. The water signifies the faithful who are incorporated into Christ. Other than wheaten bread and wine from the grape cannot be the matter for this Sacrament. The form of this Sacrament is the very words of Christ, “This is My Body,” and “This is the chalice of My Blood of the new and eternal testament; the mystery of faith; which shall be shed for you and for many, to the remission of sins.” These words spoken by the priest in the person of Christ brings into being this Sacrament. The minister of this Sacrament is the priest; and no one else can consecrate this matter into the Body of Christ.

I think I’ll stick with the guys whose names start with “S” after all. Like, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Sts. Justin, Irenaeus, and Cyril. Oh, and Stephen Colbert. Of course, we could knock off all this nonsense and just believe what the Church teaches about the Eucharist.


Mark Shea: Garry Wills, Apostate, vs. Stephen Colbert, Catechist, wherein we learn that Wills is worried about the Papacy. Say a prayer for him.

Speaking of the Eucharist, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: by Brant Pitre, did not win a Pulitzer.

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  • Louis Gonzales

    My friend was surprised that Colbert was a Catholic. He always assumed that he was an atheist since his humor is pretty risque. He thought he was a hypocrite to be Catholic, since he portrays himself as someone who is somewhat foolish/despicable. I didn’t think that. Colbert is just playing a character. He’s an actor. That character doesn’t represent him fully. Overall, I find Colbert to be an incredibly smart individual. He’s had to suffer a lot throughout his life, yet he’s used that suffering to help make other people laugh and to be momentarily happy. I really respect him.

  • Nathan

    Great post! Thanks for the Augustine quotes, anyone who has read Augustine (and not just on Protestant websites) knows Wills claim is absurd, although often heard. It might pay to point out that Augustine would have submitted himself to the Church, “I would not believe the Gospel if the authority of the Catholic Church did not compel me.” I wonder, as Mr Wills seems to base his faith on Augustine if he agrees with this, “a man cannot have salvation except in the Catholic Church. Outside the Catholic Church he can have everything except salvation”

  • Chad Torgerson

    I have long been a fan of Colbert. His brand of satire is right up my alley. In this video, I think he does a fantastic job of defending the faith and shows how well catechized he is. Few nominal Catholics would have been able to answer so sharply and quickly. Some may question Colbert for his humor, but underneath that character or persona he is playing, I think there is a heart of a good Catholic. Well done, Mr. Colbert.

  • Claude

    I’ve never read any of Wills’ works.

    Well then, I guess you are just the man to critique Garry Wills! You are aware that Wills attended seminary and wrote/translated nine (by my count) books on Augustine? He knows what he’s talking about.

    • Frank Weathers

      Sorry. St. Thomas Aquinas and all the Doctors of the Church outshine Garry Wills. And then, there is the Holy Spirit, of course,

      For it is written,

      “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
      and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.”

      St. Thomas explains,

      1 Corinthians Commentary (1-3)

      49. – It should be noted in regard to the first point that anything good in itself cannot appear foolish to anyone, unless there is a lack of wisdom. This, therefore is the reason why the word of the cross, which is salutary for believers, seems foolish to others, namely, because they are devoid of wisdom; and this is what he says: For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness (prudence) of the clever (prudent) I will thwart. This can be taken from two places: for it is written in Ob (v.8): “Will I not destroy the wise men out of Edom, and understanding out of Mount Esau?”; but it is more explicit in Is (29:14): “The wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hid.” Now wisdom and prudence are different: for wisdom is knowledge of divine things; hence it pertains to contemplation; “The fear of the Lord is wisdom” (Jb 28:28). Prudence, however, is, properly speaking, knowledge of human things; hence it says in Pr (10:23): “Wisdom is prudence to a man,” namely, because knowledge of human affairs is called wisdom. Hence, the Philosopher also says in Ethics VI that prudence is the right understanding of things to be done; and so prudence pertains to reason.

      50. – Yet it should be noted that men, however evil, are not altogether deprived of God’s gifts; neither are God’s gifts in them destroyed. Consequently, he does not say absolutely, “I will destroy the wisdom,” because “all wisdom is from the Lord God” (Sir 1:1), but I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, i.e., which the wise of this world have invented for themselves against the true wisdom of God, because as it says in Jas (3:15): “This is not wisdom, descending from above; but earthly, sensual, devilish.” Similarly, he does not say, “I will reject prudence,” for God’s wisdom teaches true prudence, but the prudence of the prudent, i.e., which is regarded as prudent by those who esteem themselves prudent in worldly affairs, so that they cling to the goods of this world, or because “the prudence of the flesh is death” (Rom 8:6). Consequently, because of their lack of wisdom they suppose that it is impossible for God to become man and suffer death in His human nature; but due to a lack of prudence they consider it unbecoming for a man to endure the cross,” despising the shame” (Heb 12:2).

      It’s the Year of Faith, after all. So St. Phillip Neri’s suggestion on choosing authors is a wise one.

      • Claude

        Well you can always use 1Cor 1:19 as an excuse for philistinism, I suppose.

        Sorry, cutting and pasting from an “Apologetics Toolkit” is not an argument. If you really want to rumble with the likes of Wills, perhaps you should dig deeper than a brief appearance on Colbert.

        • Frank Weathers

          St. Thomas Aquinas, ignorant philistine? Heh. There is no argument in this case, though in the spirit of St. Thomas, perhaps I’ll read Wills’ book one day. Do you think his publisher will send me a review copy? ;)

          • http://denythecat/ Brian Sullivan

            In preparing to come back to the Catholic Church, I read Wills’ “Papal Sins” and “Why I Am A Catholic” (Hmm…). As my Rhetoric prof would say, “many assertions, not much proof.” There is some good stuff, but a lot of drek.

          • Claude

            I wasn’t referring to Aquinas…

            but by all means read Wills. He’s a distinguished writer and deeply religious Catholic whose work hardly “rings hollow.”

          • Claude

            By the way, you forgot this part from Augustine’s Sermon 227:

            Let the Sacrament not appear of trifling value to you because you look upon it. What you see passes; but the invisible, that which is not seen, does not pass; it remains. Behold, it is received; it is eaten; it is consumed. Is the body of Christ consumed? Is the Church of Christ consumed? Are the members of Christ consumed? God forbid!

            Like Wills said…

          • Frank Weathers

            Actually, the Church gets the last word. But the Dumb Ox gets the penultimate word,

            Almighty and Eternal God, behold I come to the sacrament of Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. As one sick I come to the Physician of life; unclean, to the Fountain of mercy; blind, to the Light of eternal splendor; poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth. Therefore, I beg of You, through Your infinite mercy and generosity, heal my weakness, wash my uncleanness, give light to my blindness, enrich my poverty, and clothe my nakedness. May I thus receive the Bread of Angels, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, with such reverence and humility, contrition and devotion, purity and faith, purpose and intention, as shall aid my soul’s salvation.

            Grant, I beg of You, that I may receive not only the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord, but also its full grace and power. Give me the grace, most merciful God, to receive the Body of your only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, in such a manner that I may deserve to be intimately united with His mystical Body and to be numbered among His members. Most loving Father, grant that I may behold for all eternity face to face Your beloved Son, whom now, on my pilgrimage, I am about to receive under the sacramental veil, who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, world without end. Amen.

            As for Garry Wills,

            It's like the man says...

            ;) Don’t you dare smile.

          • Geoffrey

            Gary Wills doesn’t even believe Jesus was born of a virgin. He’s a sophist, and no amount of knowledge can break a sophist out of his own self-deception. Just because someone has great learning doesn’t mean that they’ve also got great understanding. One can read a thousand books and be all the worse for it. The defining characteristic of a sage is his simplicity, humility, clarity, and deftness at comprehending and using what he knows without doing any violence to the facts as the world presents them. And that’s just not who Gary Wills is.

            Gary Wills is a thoroughly modern man who has plenty of motive, in light of modern ideology, to consciously or unconsciously misread ancient traditions and history in such a way as to preserve the more comforting aspects of his religion while discarding any inconveniences that might stand in the way of accepting modern views of equality, sexual or otherwise. After all, there is nothing more abhorrent to the modern mind than actual, physical innocence, and actual, tangible hierarchy, and actual, effectual miracles. Modern people are at war with their bodies and the material universe, and they feel deeply that any union between spirit and flesh must be severed by the knife of metaphor. If truth must become a sad casualty of war, so be it.

    • Levi

      Wills is Catholic by name, not by action. To be Catholic you have to be in full acceptance of core teachings, like the teaching of the Eucharist. So your assertion that he is Catholic would be incorrect.

  • john

    I never watched Colbert..I assumed he was just another liberal atheist..guess I was for Gary Willis..there is nothing Catholic about him and he should just go join some denomination of the day pick and choose sect that suits his foolishness..John Kerry,Andrew Cuomo,Nancy Pelosi and the rest of those apostates in positions to decieve should do the like and the Church should grow aspine and start ridding the weeds out of it..they’re choking the populace of the faithful with their mockeries

  • Agnikan

    So where did Wills misquote St. Augustine?

    • Elmtree

      he quoted him out of context to back his own beliefs– which are not in accord with Catholicism. To disbelieve in the Eucharist- in the True Presence- is about as not Catholic as you can get.

  • Lisa Graas

    Colbert also said, “Hey, Your holiness. You know what else isn’t in the Bible? The Pope.”

    That sort of irreverent propagation of ignorance about Catholicism should make us all cringe and avoid promoting him.

  • Leslie Fain

    Why do you call The American Conservative The Imaginative Conservative?

    • Frank Weathers

      I imagine it’s because I’m confused. Thankee!

  • Leslie Fain

    LOL. I thought you were making fun of TAC.

    • Frank Weathers


  • Claude


    That was stirring , but what are you talking about? You are of course right that just because someone has great learning doesn’t mean that they’ve also got great understanding.

    But what do you mean by this:

    After all, there is nothing more abhorrent to the modern mind than actual, physical innocence…

    and this:

    Modern people are at war with their bodies and the material universe, and they feel deeply that any union between spirit and flesh must be severed by the knife of metaphor.

  • CatholicScoob

    Claude – why do you keep posting here as well as at Mark Shea’s blog? They keep dismantling your arguments. Your standard response appears to be a paragraph from Augustine taken out of context which doesn’t actually mean what you think it means, and yet you’re fine with ignoring the overwhelming evidence of Augustine’s belief in the Real Presence? Baffling.

    • Claude

      Why are you so concerned with my posting habits? You certainly haven’t been reading very closely. Baffling.

  • Subsistent

    As a believer in the Real Presence, I get nervous when any defenders of that Presence assert that our Lord is there “physically”. Because as far as I know, no Magisterial declaration of that presence uses that root “physic-”. That He is really, truly, and substantially present bodily, corporeally, I admit. But *physical* is ambiguous. Hence Cardinal Ratzinger was Englished in 2002 as saying in 200o (in the book *God and the World*): “It has never been [Magisterially] asserted that, so to say, nature in a physical sense is being changed. The transformation reaches down to a more profound level.
    BTW, belief in transubstantiation and the Real Presence does not require us to admit that the appearances of bread and wine which remain after the Consecration are themselves the Christ. For according to the Eucharistic theology of Thomas Aquinas, after the Consecration the appearances of bread and wine which we see, stand on their own. So what our eyes see is not Christ. Our eyes see the appearances characteristic of bread and wine, appearances under which, but not identical with which, the Lamb of God, “beheld” with the “eyes” of faith, is really and substantially present.

    • Subsistent

      Clarification: The direct quote from Cardinal Ratzinger ends just before my “BTW”.

  • Sandra

    Stephen Colbert, the real person, is contrary to popular belief, not only a practicing Catholic, he is a Catechist in his parish. He has a standing rule to the show writers of what is fair “game” and what is untouchable in regards to the Catholic Church.

  • Angel

    This Wills guy is doing his own will. He is a protestant clown pretending to be a catholic. He don’t understand theology, he just make stuff up.

  • Rod

    Garry Wills must be playing a game. How can he claim to be catholic when he denies the sacramtn of ordination and tendentiously interprets Augustine?

    I trust those interested enough to read his books are also knowledgable enough to see their sloppy referencing and tendentious reasoning. Otherwise Wills is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. For the low-knowledge based who read Wills he is doing great damage to Christ’s Gospel … shame on him.

  • Truthiness

    Augustine completely believes the Real Presence:

    That quote of Sermon 227 above is totally butchered – Augustine is REINFORCING belief in the Eucharist as really Christ, not at all diminishing.