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Last September, two Catholic comedians traded jokes and thoughts on their faith in front of a large crowd of 3,000 students at Fordham University. The two Catholic comedians? Stephen Colbert, host of the Comedy Central show The Colbert Report, and Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop of New York. The use of humor by Catholic public figures to make their faith more relatable and to break through the noise of themodern media is a growing trend that is increasingly successful at reaching the religiously curious, especially the young. In a world where piety and public expressions of faith are often marginalized, humor offers an entrance to thinking and talking about faith in a way that captures a core part of the Catholic tradition: the joy of Christianity.
Catholic humor is spreading in a number of ways, and often in unlikely places. While popular wisdom would say one should “never talk religion and politics and the dinner table,” Stephen Colbert goes one step further–he jokes about both on the air. As perhaps the best-known Catholic comedian, Colbert speaks sincerely about his faith out of the studio while walking a fine line of religious humor and cynicism on the air. What is certain though is the exposure that his show provides to the Catholic faith in a variety of ways, reaching millions of young people. Colbert spreads Catholic culture through hysterical segments such as a “Catholic Throwdown” with rock legend Jack White and by bringing on thoughtful and relatable figures such as Fr. James Martin S.J. to talk about Catholic issues in the news. Martin himself authored a book “Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.” Colbert’s humor is in many ways of form of evangelization, however unconventional.
Less explicitly but with the same impact, comedian Jim Gaffigan has gained a following in the Catholic community for his clean humor and jokes about Catholic family life. In a world where many families face high stress situations and where a romanticized view of love leads many into marriage unprepared, Gaffigan’s jokes about living out Catholic family values delivers an honest and personable look into the church’s teachings in practice.
Within the Catholic community, a sense of humor goes a long way towards easing tensions around age-old debates in the church, issues that too often become ideological or political and lose sight of Christ. The website “Eye of the Tiber” – well-described as the “Catholic” version of The Onion – takes first prize in this effort, providing much needed comic relief from issues that too often divide us, and in the process, just might raise some curiosity about the issues themselves. Adding some humor to the much-needed reform of the Curia – essentially the Vatican government – Eye of the Tiber featured this headline: “Pope Francis To Investigate Roman Curia On TV Show “Undercover Boss.” The article “Expert Analysis From Community College World Religions Teacher On CNN” added some humorous perspective to the frustration Catholics face when unqualified individuals speak on behalf of the church in media. After Pope Francis’ vehicle made a wrong turn at World Youth Day, this headline told the real story: “I Told Him Left…Make A Freaking Left,’ Pope Vents To Youth.” At the end of the day, G.K. Chesterton’s maxim “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it,” has a lot to offer. Our faith is a joy, and when we take ourselves too seriously, we risk the pride and close-mindedness that humor can restore to humility.
These examples point to the larger message; using a sense of humor is “Catholic” in a number of ways. It promotes a sense of humility, and thereby an openness and readiness to embrace those we encounter as Christ. Pope Francis has proven this point time and time again, as his sense of humor plays a large part in presenting a more “relatable” papacy. He jokes often about himself, dispelling any sense of pretension and self-importance even as pontiff of the church. When addressing an audience of Jesuit-school children in Italy, Pope Francis quipped: “Someone who wants to be pope does not really like themselves.” Cardinal Ratzinger, before being elected as Pope Benedict XVI, noted God’s “sense of humor” calls us not to “take ourselves so seriously.” He beautifully explained how, “Humor is in fact an essential element in the mirth of creation. We can see how, in many matters in our lives, God wants to prod us into taking things a bit more lightly; to see the funny side of it; to get down off our pedestal and not to forget our sense of fun.”
“Lightening up a bit” does not mean taking our faith – which should stand at the center of our life – any less seriously. It simply means recognizing that no person escapes from mistakes and embarrassments, they are part of human nature. Jokes are not meant to teach like parables are, but humor is a way to both humble ourselves and to break through the pallor of anxiety and insecurity that hangs over much of Western society and especially oppresses the young. More importantly, humor is a way to grab attention for the questions of faith and religious contemplation that are drowned out amidst the noise of our busy lives.
Kevin D. Sullivan is a member of Georgetown University’s class of ‘14.