The day after Easter, in a small studio in New York City, in the span of three minutes and eleven seconds, a man mentioned a mitre, a monk, a chasuble, a reliquary, votive candles, the Sacraments, celibacy, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
One hears those words and imagines a nave of parishioners or the couchy décor of EWTN. But this was neither. Nor was this the residence of the Archbishop or some other patch of holy ground. The source of this catechesis was the television network that gave America “South Park,” and which broadcasts profane tributes to the likes of Pamela Anderson and Donald Trump.
Say hello to “Comedy Central” and “The Colbert Report.”
For the unacquainted, “The Colbert Report” (the latter two words pronounced with a silent “t”) evolved from Stephen Colbert’s years as a fake news anchor on Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” In “The Colbert Report” Colbert plays the same character, but now modeled on the bombast of a Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann. His show combines news, commentary, and feature stories, all accessories to thirty minutes of satirical self-promotion.
Colbert is a practicing Catholic and so is his character, and sometimes something apostolic appears to break through. Consider the confetti of Catholic words that opened the post-Easter episode. In the opening monologue, a groggy, depleted Colbert began to recall his weekend, unbosoming memories from what he called his “Catholic bender.”
It had started, he said, on Holy Thursday night. Walking past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Colbert “caught a little whiff of incense.” Not long after, he was “stumbling through the streets of Manhattan in a chasuble and mitre begging for quarters to buy votive candles.” He later “genuflected all over the back of a cab” and eventually passed out near an “abbot illuminating a manuscript.” The bacchanal included a concurrent saying of the Hail Mary and the Our Father, in Colbert’s words, “the Catholic speedball.”
“I guess I just have to accept,” Colbert concluded, “that I’m a functional Roman Catholic.”
It was hilarious. And it was not the first time that Colbert revealed his inner catechist. So numerous are the clips involving religious and Catholic topics, one could almost assign the “The Report” to introduce Catholic theology.
For example, he has interviewed atheists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, each time offering impressive responses to their unctuous non-belief. In the wake of psychologist Philip Zimbardo’s preposterous exegesis of the Adam and Eve allegory, Colbert responded with an exposition of the Catholic understanding of hell, concluding the interview with what might be the most well-timed expletive in the history of television.
On Ash Wednesday of this year, Colbert opened his show with ashes on his forehead and discoursed briefly on Lent. Colbert has also interviewed Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., about the Vatican’s position on extraterrestrial life, as well as law professor Douglas Kmiec on Catholic support for President Barack Obama. In one segment titled the “De-deification of the American Faithscape,” Colbert began a critique of the modern lack of religious belief by reciting the Nicene Creed.
Furthermore, Colbert has appointed a Catholic priest, America’s Fr. James Martin, S.J., as “The Colbert Report” chaplain. Together, they have discussed the preferential option for the poor; the words of Jesus in Matthew 25; the life and prayer of Mother Teresa; the connection between a bad economy and belief in God; the vow (and value) of poverty; and social justice. Once, as Colbert’s time with Fr. Martin neared an end, Colbert said, “Father, this interview has ended. Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
The skits and interviews are compelling, in part, because Colbert does not indulge agendas. While sometimes stooping for a cheap laugh, his comedy usually evades the retort, “He’s on our side.” Colbert’s show is one of the few experiences involving Catholics and media that disarms, or at least is not demanding of a pro or con stance contrived as a test of orthodoxy.
But that is incidental to the show’s main charm. Just think about what Colbert is up against. Vast numbers of people associate the Catholic Church with ruining children, or with prejudicial fear of women and homosexuals. Moreover, in addition to the abuse catastrophe, the successors of the apostles have won attention of late for a) expelling the children of lesbians from a Boulder, Colorado Catholic grade school; b) urging the denial of communion to Catholics who are pro-choice; c) excommunicating a hospital administrator (a religious sister) because, according to the Diocese of Phoenix, she chose wrongly in permitting an abortion to save the life of the mother; d) withdrawing celebrations of the Eucharist from that same hospital; and e) admonishing a professor of theology, also a sister, because the USCCB’s committee on doctrine concluded that her recent book misconstrued God.
Watch enough news, in other words, and one might believe that evangelism centers not around building a relationship with Christ but in discerning what should be prohibited or denied.
And yet, here’s Colbert, on a channel known for ribaldry, slipping in talk about sacraments and saints, hassling the pope as though he were a beloved uncle, and conversing with a prominent Jesuit about Jesus and Mother Teresa. Here’s Colbert divulging an affinity for St. Patrick’s Cathedral and defending Catholic social thought. It’s as if, through his character, Colbert is trying to convey what others lack the forum or believability to explain: that Catholicism is not about predatory priests or the solving of ethical puzzles, but an adventure filled with joys and hopes, grief and anguish, sustained always by a foundational faith in things unseen.
The advocacy from so unlikely a source is enough to make one really believe the gates of the netherworld will not prevail. During another nadir of the Church’s credibility, Colbert may be the only prominent Catholic who can speak about Catholic things in a way that does not immediately send people for a quiver or shield.
The office of New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, himself a bright light for the American Church, is just ten minutes from Colbert’s Comedy Central studios. I don’t know if the archbishop has seen Colbert’s show, but I do know he prizes a good pint. Thus I humbly say: Your Excellency, buy this man a beer. He’s earned it.
Matt Emerson is a graduate of Saint Louis University and the Notre Dame Law School. He teaches sophomore scripture and assists with campus ministry at Xavier College Preparatory in Palm Desert, CA. Previously he has written for Patheos on Law, Education, and Lady Gaga. Matt can be reached at [email protected]