Stephen Colbert’s Speech at the Al Smith Dinner

Stephen Colbert was one of the headliners at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner on Thursday night — in honor of the former New York governor and Roman Catholic luminary — and his speech was as entertaining as you would expect it to be:

Over the course of 10 minutes, Colbert said New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s outfit of robes and cap made him look like a “flamboyant Zorro,” joked that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was dating a CNBC anchor, called Mayor Michael Bloomberg a “tiny man” and said the modest Pope Francis would’ve likely held the black-tie fundraiser at an iHop.

“I am proud to be America’s most famous Catholic,” Colbert declared, turning to Dolan, who was sitting next to him on a dais that included Gov. Andrew Cuomo, CBS anchor Scott Pelley and others. “And I’m sure the cardinal is thinking, ‘Stephen, pride is a sin.’ Well, cardinal, so is envy, so we’re even.”

He later joked, “I’m not getting paid for this. Do I get a plenary indulgence or anything?”

Colbert, as a devout Catholic, may be one of the only people who can rip on the Church’s foibles as its leaders look on with joy. That’s a power I hope he takes full advantage of while he can. Other than Pope Francis, who’s doing his best to spread a positive image of his Church despite its rules holding him back, there aren’t many Catholic leaders worth respecting. Colbert is one of them.

(via Whispers in the Loggia)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • compl3x

    Describing the behaviour of the church as “foibles” might be understating it, Hemant. :-)

    • mavp

      This is the problem with being a friendly atheist.

  • Damon Icke

    Does being famous somehow make Colbert less complicit in the crimes of the church he continues tithing to? I ask catholics I’m related to if they can justify their catholicism in light of the crimes that have been proven and I’ve been stonewalled almost every time. With the exception of my mom, who says “other people do bad things too”. Another words, the woman who raised me says sometimes two wrongs make a right. Has anyone heard Colbert or anyone else express a proper defense of the their continued catholicism? I’m looking for help here. I’m in need of a catholic to stand up and put me in my place.

    • 3lemenope

      I could be wrong, but I imagine most Catholics are Catholic because they believe that the Catholic Church is the correct religion, and not because the Catholic hierarchy remains well-behaved at all times. As hideous as the crimes are that the hierarchy has committed and covered for, the Catholics that remain (with their eyes open; surely there are also many others who simply ostrich their way through these matters) must believe that the Church is not irretrievably corrupted and can be fixed.

      • TnkAgn

        I’d posit that many – if not most – Catholics are Catholic the same way many Jews are Jewish: Family upbringing, ethnic heritage, with a nod to arcane tradition. And they are typically either semi or non-observant.

        • revyloution

          That was my thought. It’s surely anecdotal, but every Catholic I know uses birth control, supports abortion rights at some level, thinks gay marriage is fine, etc. Catholicism is more like their social club than a genuine faith. They get a beautiful hall for their marriages, births and deaths, good network of friends, and access to good schools (argue all you like, many Catholic schools give a good education, and produce more atheists than the average public school).

          • TnkAgn

            Catholic school products: Atheists, agnostics, Unitarian Universalists, and good number of self-hating Catholics, I’d guess

          • C.L. Honeycutt

            argue all you like, many Catholic schools give a good education

            Not arguing, but what I see time and time again are people who didn’t get an education from Catholic schools, but were rather trained. For instance, they can recite apologetics that they learned in school and reference philosophers, but they don’t understand them.

            Of course, lots of other people get trained in school rather than educated. It just stands out more when those schools are supposedly of higher quality.

        • FTP_LTR

          I had a discussion to nowhere with my former MIL who definitely, and adamantly identifies as Catholic, but doesn’t feel that this means she needs to attend Mass. Given that she’s also into horoscopes, psychics and the like, I’d says she’s more accurately “Generally spiritual from a Catholic background” but that wouldn’t fit on the census forms.

          It’s like the traditional Church of England as default religion in the UK where it’s not so much about the God stuff as it is about the jumble sales, the tea and cake, and a bit of singing every now and then.

      • Anna

        It’s interesting, though, to see Catholics who clearly disagree on matters of doctrine stay in the church. Someone like Colbert must know that there isn’t going to be any change when it comes to those issues, yet he doesn’t leave.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        In my experience (perhaps not typical) most Catholics were raise Catholic and leaving the church is inconceivable. They just can’t imagine going to another kind of church. Some of that is cultural and some of that is fear that they will burn in hell if they reject the church?

      • viaten

        I wonder if the catholic religion isn’t one where the most congregation members have the largest (sometimes unexpressed) disagreements with church doctrine while also having the largest reluctance to leave completely. Maybe it’s because the catholic church is old, big, and bureaucratic, with lots of history, rituals and garments. Maybe Catholics have the feeling that if it has lasted this long, maybe that means something or there’s something to it.

        • Cake

          And family members who take it waaay too seriously.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          Maybe Catholics have the feeling that if it has lasted this long, maybe that means something or there’s something to it.

          I’ve had two Catholics tell me, in no uncertain terms, that the RCC’s age is proof that it’s literally magic.

          They each got REAL quiet when I suggested that they bow down to the Japanese emperor, who must be the only valid government since his throne is obviously likewise blessed by the gods.

          On a tangent, they get really super pissed if it’s pointed out that the RCC and La Cosa Nostra use the same methods to succeed.

          • viaten

            As a Catholic, I used to think “older is better”, specifically that older in origin is better, but Christianity still superseded Judaism because it was an “upgrade”, but then I also dismissed Islam. But the “older is better” idea took hold again when I was into the Eastern ideas like Zen, Buddhism and Taoism, but then I dismissed Hinduism (too many Gods). “Older” seems to have the idea of “less tainted” by the corruption of the ideas that time would inevitably bring. It seemed the more “ancient”, the more true, pure, powerful, effective, genuine, etc. It’s essentially the “ancient wisdom” fallacy that appeals to many people.

      • Mary O’Grady

        As a recovering Catholic, I think it’s a cosmic extortion racket. Get your ticket punched and pay up, or burn for eternity.

      • Carmelita Spats

        Absolutely! The ones with their “eyes open” need to delve into Patrick J. Wall’s blog (which they won’t). Wall is an ex-priest, a canon lawyer, and has been an ardent advocate for victims of sexual abuse for the last twenty years. Wall has demonstrated over and over and over again that the Catholic Church is NOT capable of protecting children.

        Patrick J. Wall:

        http://patrickjwall.wordpress.com/

        “The Roman Catholic Church has not learned and in fact may not have the capacity to learn how to protect children in their care.”

        Eyes wide open? Then the issue goes to the very heart of their narcissism: they remain in a church even at the expense of others who are being sexually tortured. It is sick. Christianity is the ultimate act of narcissism.

        • 3lemenope

          Then the issue goes to the very heart of their narcissism: they remain in a church even at the expense of others who are being sexually tortured. It is sick. Christianity is the ultimate act of narcissism.

          Would you say the same of Americans who did not renounce their citizenship after the revelations regarding the perpetration of torture at Abu Ghraib?

          People do not automatically become complicit in all the acts of a group they belong to, and personal divestment isn’t the only, or usually even the best, way to signal discontent with a group’s policies.

          • Anat

            Except identifying with a religion-with-establishment is more of a choice than citizenship is. Not a good idea to be stateless, and no state is morally pure.

            • 3lemenope

              I agree that the analogy is partially inapt for the reason you identify, but it remains effective insofar as just like there are no nations that are morally pure and yet it is still morally permissible to call any one of them home, likewise there is no religious institution with a perfect moral record, but that’s not a reasonable standard for picking which religion, if any, to adhere to.

          • Chuck Farley

            I would also point out that many, many Americans spoke up in protest over the Abu Ghraib tragedy. I haven’t, and still don’t hear many Catholics protesting the child rape problem. Much the opposite, most Catholics dismiss the problem as being one of individuals and, hold the “chuch” harmless.

            • 3lemenope

              This is an extremely important point. I agree that the relative proportion and visibility of dissenters is wildly disparate between the two cases, to the obvious moral detriment of Catholics.

      • joey_in_NC

        I could be wrong, but I imagine most Catholics are Catholic because they believe that the Catholic Church is the correct religion, and not because the Catholic hierarchy remains well-behaved at all times.

        This is obviously correct.

        Some people simply fail to realize that Catholics view their religion much more differently than their shopping market of choice.

        • 3lemenope

          Where many here might be guilty of giving too little credit, here I think you’re giving slightly too much. I think that most Catholics are Catholic because they believe Catholicism is true, but it does not follow that fidelity to the label guarantees substance. Indeed, it is often the case that said Catholics are mostly if not entirely ignorant of the very content of those beliefs to which they are giving assent, or are aware and consciously choose to differ with the church and rationalize differing on those matters as their being peripheral to the core beliefs of the religion.

          It is otherwise difficult to account for the remarkable support that same-sex marriage, abortion rights, the death penalty, and contraception access all enjoy among the American Catholic populace.

          • joey_in_NC

            Indeed, it is often the case that said Catholics are mostly if not entirely ignorant of the very content of those beliefs to which they are giving assent, or are aware and consciously choose to differ with the church and rationalize differing on those matters as their being peripheral to the core beliefs of the religion.

            Yes, I agree.

    • Hat Stealer

      The moral failing of most Catholics- around 90% in the US at least- is simply their continued support of a corrupt and evil institution. This doesn’t necessarily mean they support what the Catholic Church is doing- they just think that it’s a fixable problem, and that this justifies them being a part of what they still see as the ‘right’ church. I see this as a mark of being wrong and misguided more than being “complicit in the crimes of the Church.”

      Stephen Colbert has his failings. The fact that he’s a Catholic is one of them. But he’s mocked and criticized the Church enough to be labeled one of those Catholics who are just as disgusted as the rest of us with what the Church is doing. He just doesn’t make the leap and say “I probably shouldn’t be Catholic.” Strong family ties and all that.

      • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

        If it’s fixable, then what are they doing to fix it?

      • Brett N

        The argument that they’re “simply” supporting the institution but not supporting what it does is ridiculous. That does not get the supporters off the hook. Religious moderation is just another kind of poison in that it’s just as illogical a position (if not more so!) than fundamentalism.

        • WVHeisenberg

          Naturally. Which is why if your government every does anything wrong, you shouldn’t vote for candidates who try to fix it. You shouldn’t speak out against it. You should just renounce your citizenship and go somewhere else.

          • Anat

            With the difference that being stateless puts one in a legally vulnerable position that being faithless does not.

            • Crimson

              Based on some of the stories I’ve read here, being faithless also puts you into a legally vulnerable position. ;)

          • Anna

            The Catholic church is not a democracy. Ordinary Catholics don’t get to vote. There’s no mechanism for change. If you speak out against it, you’ll be ignored (laity) or expelled (clergy). Why would any decent Catholic stay in a church like that? If I lived in a fundamentalist dictatorship and knew there was no way I could change it, I’d leave. When there’s absolutely no hope for reform, what other choice makes sense?

    • Chesire11

      A thing is either true, or it is not. If it is not true, the devotion of all the greatest people who ever lived will not make it so. Similarly, if it is true, then all of the offenses by all of the miscreants in history cannot make it false.

      There have been many Catholics who have been saints, and many more who have been sinners, and even villains. Similarly, there have been very many atheists of great intelligence, and moral character as well as monsters like Joseph Stalin, yet it would be silly to point to demand that atheists account for their persistence in doubting the existence of God in the face of Stalin’s crimes.

      Catholics don’t remain Catholic because we believe Catholics do not sin, we remain Catholic because we believe Catholicism is true.

  • sam

    Oh my, we’re gently ribbing child rapists and their enablers! We’re all having such fun! Ha, ha, don’t they dress funny?! And what’s the deal with airline food?

  • Anna

    Colbert, as a devout Catholic, may be one of the only people who can rip on the Church’s foibles as its leaders look on with joy.

    It’s kind of amazing what he gets away with. If Bill Maher said the exact same things, people like Bill Donohue and Timothy Dolan would jump all over him. But when it’s Colbert, they look the other way. They’re even willing to come on his show!

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      For one thing, Colbert’s act is amazing. He also throws some zingers at the left as well as the right which makes him harder to attack. (The Kerry zinger was hilarious, btw.)

      • Randay

        The criticisms of Colbert I have read here seem to miss the point. So what if someone doesn’t agree with everything you others’ think? He gets his points across better than most. A compliment from Colbert can only be considered a compliment if you don’t get it. Who was the ignorant Jesus Freak who followed him? Zeus damn him.

  • Nick

    That was funny until that buzz kill after Colbert started driveling nonsense…

  • Jeff See

    My level of respect for Colbert, dropped tremendously when I found out he was (still) a Catholic. Someone who would otherwise appear so intelligent, confuses me when they keep allegiances that would betray that same intelligence.

    • DougI

      it may have to do with Colbert coming from a big family and despite all of them going to Catholic church none of them were raped by a priest. In other words, Colbert witnessed a miracle.

      • Jeff See

        While you jest, you’ve brought up a good point. I wonder how many people, identify as Catholic, that do so simply because they know not how to be anything else? Or fear being cast out of all that they know?

    • allein

      I used to watch The Colbert Report regularly and I often wondered if he was truly Catholic or if it was just part of the character.

      • Jeff See

        I used to wonder that myself. He’s made statements, ‘out of character’, that lead me to believe he’s genuinely sticking to his belief.

  • jordan

    colbert can’t seriously be a catholic. just like he’s not seriously a republican.

    • 3lemenope

      He teaches Sunday School at his church.

      • islandbrewer

        I would so totally go to a Sunday School taught by Stephen Colbert, but I’m afraid he probably isn’t as comedic, then.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          In an interview, he and his wife said that she actually sent him right back out when he came in to see her still “in character”.

          • islandbrewer

            I’ve also heard that he won’t let his kids watch his show (yet, that may have changed), because he doesn’t think they’ll understand that he’s in character or that he’s being sarcastic.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      He very much is.

  • Lina Baker

    LIke most of my Roman Catholic friends, I bet that Colbert sees the failures in the Roman Catholic Church as failures of humans, rather than his God, and that he’s benefitted from his membership in terms of emotional support in times of crisis – his father and brothers were killed in a plane accident, and if you’ve ever lost a close family member and been a part of a religiously-inclined community, you know how amazing that very sincere support and love can be – I speak from experience, as an Atheist that was overwhelmed with the support of my Bible Belt community when my father died. Colbert has been incredibly hard on the Roman Catholic Church via his show, taking very sharp, unflinching jabs at it regarding its treatment of women, its wealth and its coverup of pedophilia, to the point that you can tell he’s made his audience uncomfortable (gasps rather than laughter). But I think he’s stayed in the Roman Catholic Church despite those horrors because of the support he and his family has received in their (his family’s) worst time, because he credits that church with his sense of social justice and compassion, and because of the faction within it that works so passionately for social justice and engages in activities like setting up homeless shelter, helps illegal immigrants, etc., as well as the faction that is against Rome’s policies regarding women and birth control – I think he wants to be one of those people that wants to be a part of the compassion it can promote but also work to change it (much like Jimmy Cater stayed an active Baptist for so long, trying to offer an alternative to what his church’s convention was saying). I’m not defending the Church – as an institution, the vast majority of its actions and policies absolutely disgust me, and since I wasn’t raised Catholic, its rituals are rather meaningless to me. Its wealth is vomit-inducing, and I seethe at how often it turned a blind eye to criminal, even deadly behavior, from the Holocaust to the the workhouses (slavery) of Ireland to the Rwandan genocide and on and on and on and on. But maybe it’s a little like why I stay active in government, voting, working for candidates and joining local government citizens’ committees: while I’m disgusted oh-so-often by the actions my government takes, I don’t want to leave it to the people who want to take away women’s rights, discourage minorities from voting, start wars, etc. I want it to be something that helps everyone. And it won’t be that if everyone that’s disgusted with it refuses to be a part of it to help change it.

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    I a pretty sure I read an interview awhile back in which Colbert said that he doesn’t believe in God. In other words, he is Catholic in the same sense that I am Jewish.

    I think Catholicism can be sort of an identity for some people and that there are probably quite a few atheist Catholics out there.

    • WVHeisenberg

      That’s very incorrect. In his own words, he is quite devout and definitely a believer.

      • metalsheep

        He has also stated that he teaches Sunday School.

  • Charlie Andrews

    The court orded release of documents from the Milwaukee archdiocese showed Dolan was right in the middle of the church covering and avoiding sex abuse cases. Dolan himself signed authorizations to move money in order to keep from having to pay victims of rape and abuse. Fuck their funny hats, how about call them out on their real crimes and quit being apologists, financial supporters and members of a disgustingly immoral criminal organization.

    • Chesire11

      No, if you actually read the the documents, you would see that is not the case. The Archdiocese has a legal obligation of perpetual care for the cemeteries in its possession. Then Archbishop Dolan requested permission to establish a trust fund into which to transfer the funds already reserved exclusively to that purpose. Once in the trust, those funds could not be expended on anything other than the care of the cemeteries.

      Hardly an effective way to preserve worldly riches and earthly comforts that!

  • C.L. Honeycutt

    I’ve found it harder to enjoy Colbert ever since hearing some of the smug, pappy lines regarding religion and happiness found in this: http://vimeo.com/57957568

    And I sat down eager to enjoy that show.

  • joey_in_NC

    Other than Pope Francis, who’s doing his best to spread
    a positive image of his Church despite its rules holding him back,
    there aren’t many Catholic leaders worth respecting. Colbert is one of
    them.

    One of what, exactly? That Colbert is a “Catholic leader”? How do you figure that he’s a Catholic leader? Or maybe you simply mean that Colbert is worth respecting? Why, because he’s funny? Or do you mean that he’s not worth respecting, simply because he’s Catholic? I’m confused.

    Sorry, but the ambiguity of the post ending has been bugging me for over a day.

  • WalterWhite007

    I think Colbert is not as catholic as people think he is. Many jews are really atheist or agnostic. Maybe he is trying to change it from within. Don’t forget; to say you don’t believe in a sky fairy in the USA is frowned upon. Better he mock as a believer than as a stated non believer.

  • Hibernia86

    I had heard some reports that Colbert is an agnostic. Are we sure he isn’t just culturally Catholic but intellectually agnostic?


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