Stephen Colbert interviews Garry Wills about his new book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, which has to be the feel-bad book of the month. Seriously, who buys a book like that? Anyway, Wills is unquestionably a serious intellectual, but on Catholicism, Colbert (who is a practicing Catholic) makes Wills look pretty dumb. Wills admits he doesn’t believe in the Real Presence, and doesn’t believe in the sacramental priesthood. Yet he persists in calling himself Catholic. Wills is clearly some sort of Protestant, but like so many Catholic liberals, he clings to the brand in the face of all evidence. This is why Wills comes across as ridiculous in this interview: for all his brilliance, there’s no there there. If Wills were writing as a Protestant, there would be no news here. There probably wouldn’t even be a book. It’s remarkable that it took less than a five minute interview with a Catholic comedian to make the august Wills look like a fusty modernist martinet.
It may not be clear to Garry Wills, though it will be to most people after Wills’s generation dies out, but Colbert makes it obvious that the more accurate book could be, Why Modernist Catholics? A Failed Tradition.
We are at a turning point in the life of the church in this country. Liberal Catholicism is an exhausted project. Essentially a critique, even a necessary critique at one point in our history, it is now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists. It has shown itself unable to pass on the faith in its integrity and inadequate, therefore, in fostering the joyful self-surrender called for in Christian marriage, in consecrated life, in ordained priesthood. It no longer gives life.
The answer, however, is not to be found in a type of conservative Catholicism obsessed with particular practices and so sectarian in its outlook that it cannot serve as a sign of unity of all peoples in Christ.
The answer is simply Catholicism, in all its fullness and depth, a faith able to distinguish itself from any cultures and yet able to engage and transform them all, a faith joyful in all the gifts Christ wants to give us and open to the whole world he died to save. The Catholic faith shapes a church with a lot of room for differences in pastoral approach, for discussion and debate, for initiatives as various as the peoples whom God loves. But, more profoundly, the faith shapes a church which knows her Lord and knows her own identity, a church able to distinguish between what fits into the tradition that unites her to Christ and what is a false start or a distorting thesis, a church united here and now because she is always one with the church throughout the ages and with the saints in heaven.
I strongly suggest reading the whole thing, in which the Cardinal elaborates on his criticism of liberal Catholicism, but also explains where he thinks many conservative Catholics go wrong.