Colbert's Cloak and Dagger Catechesis
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 writes from California, where he teaches at Xavier Prep.