Colbert's Covert Catechesis

Matt Emerson, who has recently served up some excellent, challenging and provocative reads for us in the Catholic portal (and will soon be launching his own column with us) considers Stephen Colbert’s sly, “cloak and dagger catechesis” and why it makes him a cheerful ambassador for the church, and perhaps the “best thing going” in American Catholicism.

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.

I agree with Emerson’s thesis. Colbert dares to not just “invite” Catholic priests, authors and theologians onto his show, he “welcomes” them. And even within his satirical broadcast, he makes it clear that teasing is okay — Catholics can take it, or should be able to — but the theology, the dogma, the creed are where lines are drawn.

Some, I’m sure, don’t like it, or they feel Colbert allows too much license — takes too much for himself — but I am inclined to think that there is something in Colbert that is of a piece with our dear St. Philip Neri, who was (as Pat Gohn wrote this week) a happy fool for Christ in ways that allowed Christ to be magnified, and his own lowly self to be humbled.

There are a number of Colbert links in Emerson’s piece. Take them all in, and see what you think!

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • login_id_

    “genuflected all over the back of a cab” … uh, I don’t think I want to hear more about this guy, thanks.

  • Carol Kritselis

    Colbert creeps me out.

  • http://sailorette.blogspot.com Foxfier

    Oh, yes, association with Colbert is great– what’s not to love about sex jokes, ignorant attacks (that came back to bite him) and false witness (before congress, even)?

  • http://chrysologus.blogspot.com Adam Rasmussen

    Although I really do enjoy his show and can appreciate the PR help he is providing Catholicism, it’s worth pointing out that he’s clearly in favor of gay marriage, which I think significantly undermines his ability to serve as a public role model of Catholicism.

    The rest of his liberal views seem to be within the realm of acceptable Catholic opinion, as much as they make tick off conservative Catholics (e.g., the guy saying he bore false witness before Congress).

    [I don't watch a lot of the show, have you actually heard him state that he is in favor of gay marriage? I don't ask to be combative, but simply to know. People sometimes make assumptions about my positions on things, and they end up being wrong. -admin]

  • http://sailorette.blogspot.com Foxfier

    http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/224789/april-16-2009/the-colbert-coalition-s-anti-gay-marriage-ad

    Really tired of “oh, look, they didn’t attack us once or twice– they’re great!” type “promotion.”

    [That skit was making fun of a really overdone ad. I would have made fun of it, too. I can't possibly know where Colbert stands; I suspect he's torn like many Catholics, between his sentimentalism and natural law. The issue has become so toxic it's almost impossible to talk about sanely, anymore. But I thought his knock of that absurdly produced ad was your basic satire. And by the way, I don't subscribe to the "if they don't wholly attack us, they're great" idea. I also don't subscribe to the "any tease or jest is a sign of hate" idea, either. If you watch the numerous links in Emerson's piece, you have to realize that Colbert does a remarkable job of presenting Catholicism as a reasonable and valuable religion, and doing so in what might be considered "hostile territory." -admin]

  • elmo

    Colbert has had some great moments in presenting the faith but I stopped watching after the Christmas special aired. I dunno but watching Willie Nelson bringing gifts of marijuana to Jesus in a Nativity spoof crossed some sort of line for me.

    The Catholic bender wasn’t all that funny and didn’t get many laughs from the audience either who mostly seemed confused at all the “strange” words he was throwing out there.

    That said, I appreciate Colbert’s stealth catechizing and see the potential for leading souls to the Faith thru his comedy show. I love how the Holy Spirit can be found where we least expect Him to show up. God’s got a sense of humor to be sure.

  • Catherine McCaw

    To admin:

    I have seen every episode of The Colbert Report, and I can assure you that Colbert is clearly in favor of gay marriage. The character he portrays is vociferously against it, but there are strong hints that his character is a closeted homosexual in deep denial. By speaking through his character, Colbert consistently mocks anti-gay marriage arguments on his show without every SAYING he is in favor of legalizing gay marriage. Colbert also disagrees with official Catholic doctrine on contraceptives and premarital sex. He has said in interviews that he does not think it makes him less of a Catholic to disagree with his church on some points. I submit that most American Catholics are in the same position, if not on the gay marriage issue, on some of the other issues.

    Therefore, I think he makes an excellent role model for the modern American Catholic struggling to reconcile church teaching and discipline with modern life, as well as grappling with more eternal theological quandaries like “why do bad things happen to good people?”. One segment that particularly moved me was this one: http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/210689/november-18-2008/the-word—love-lost.

    So while I cannot claim Colbert is a completely orthodox Catholic, I believe that he is a good Catholic.

  • Emkay

    I did not rewatch that segment with Philip Zimbardo, but I really, really dislike the fact that Colbert called him a “mother******.” Tee-hee, let’s all laugh while Colbert humiliates a jerk who spouts nonsense. Sorry, dude, but even jerks have human dignity. Argue the man’s absurd ideas, destroy them with truth and wit, but don’t verbally degrade the man himself.

  • Andy

    I too appreciate Colbert’s satire and his stealth cathechizing – I think that sometimes his satire goes too far or is misunderstood – I have a friend who thought that Colbert was a closet conservative when he saw that “ad” about gay marriage – I agree with the administrator – the topic of gay rights, gay marriage has become so toxic that a reasoned discussion or even a discussion is impossible. Like Colbert, I do know what the Church teaches, and do understand natural law yet I wonder if we are made in the image of God, does that not include individuals who are gay? I wrestle with that constantly – some of the nicest people I know are gay as are some of the biggest jerks.
    I do not watch Colbert though for enlightenment or news from him, I watch him for the satire and the way he challenges many of our sacred cows. Just my thoughts.

  • http://sailorette.blogspot.com Foxfier

    Ah. So never mind everything else, he mentioned a few Catholic words and everything else is “just humor.”

    FYI, you know who the joke’s on, right? Hint: it’s not his audience.

  • Beth

    @’being made in God’s image’ – Yes, we are all made in God’s image and likeness…and we are born with original sin. Not all ‘born that way’ traits are morally neutral. One could argue from the ‘born that way so it must be good’ premise that cleptomania is morally positive. Being made in God’s image and likeness sets us apart from all other creatures and challenges us to participate in our redemption by conforming to Jesus Christ’s teachings. Sin is chosen. Jesus challenges us to ‘go and sin no more.’

  • Andy

    To Foxfier
    I actually know the difference between a few Catholic words and “just humor”. If the joke is on me I would accept it, but I think the joke, if there is one is on individuals who try and take a satirist like Colbert for anything other than he is – a person who is wrestling with his life, is faith and does i publicly. I try to look at people as if they are trying to move forward in their relationship with Jesus. I see no reason to suggest, as you did that the joke in on me. I might suggest that you, rather than finding ill with others look for the good. I would also wonder as you said that he bears false witness to congress even.. Two points – given the state of our elected officials would they recognize the truth if they heard it or would they try to spin in some other way. Second how do you know he is bearing false witness? It is those sort of accusations that indeed make it hard to want to do what we are commanded to do – love thy neighbor.
    As far as being born in God’s image I was referring to the hatred heaped upon person who are gay, wether they are involved in homosexual relationships or not. I was not trying to equate any morality with being gay – this sort of demonstrates the toxicity of the discussion – a leap from me wrestling with the Baltimore Catechism saying we are made in the image of God, yet we are taught that we are must accept the person who gay, but not their activities. Does this then tie to persons who abuse; person who lie and cause harm? DId these people sin and so now must be meant with scorn and derision?
    Indeed Jesus challenges to go and sin no more I agree; but the sin of judging other people is equally as harmful as other sins.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    (Sigh) Sadly, this is what passes for humor these days.

    Makes one long for the days of Danny Kaye, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, etc.—people who were funny, without insulting others, or making snide remarks about religion, and/or politics.

    What we need these days are some real laughs! (Not phony ones.)

  • Matt Emerson

    Foxfier,

    Your post is unhelpfully unclear. The argument is not that Colbert said a few Catholic words, ergo he is the best thing for American Catholicism. That post-Easter episode, in the context of the modern media, and in the context of all the other links provided, presents a persuasive case that Catholics have an influential collaborator in a very unlikely venue. At a time when many, if not most, non-Catholics view the Church solely in terms of the abuse crisis, or solely in terms of who is being excommunicated or denied communion, Colbert is turning attention to essential aspects of the faith that are overlooked.

    And: why is it so important that we smoke out whether Colbert, either in real life or in his character, is for or against gay marriage? Or whether he supports the teaching on contraception? Why does the discussion immediately head that way? Why are those issues made the benchmarks for whether one is a disciple of Jesus?

  • Matt Emerson

    Emkay and Rhinestone:

    I doubt this will persuade, but Colbert is not alone in our Tradition in using invective to score a point. One of most famous and effective users of such language was none other than St. Thomas More, patron of lawyers and politicians. Read Peter Ackroyd’s excellent biography of More and you’ll see what I mean.

    I agree that Catholics ought to be cautious with their tongue and generous with their heart, but occasional profanity signals the seriousness of what’s at stake. More was battling the collapse of Christendom. For him, it was a matter of life-or-death in the ultimate (that is to say, eschatological) sense. One might argue — and I am aware we can never know for sure — that Colbert’s impromptu swearing reflects a similar belief. If you watch the interview with Zimbardo, particularly when Colbert launches the counter-response, it’s hard to detect anything else.

  • http://www.dymphnaswell.blogspot.com Dymphna

    I think it is important to learn to laugh at ourselves. I admit I haven’t seen everything Colbert has done–perhaps some of his humor is offensive. But all in all, I am glad he is bringing Catholicism “out of the closet” so to speak–where so many modern Americans think it should stay.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Matt, the problem I see with this, is that swearing isn’t “impromptu” in our culture anymore—it’s all over the place, omnipresent and overused. Nor is it occasional. it’s used so much, that you can no longer say it points out the seriousness of something—how can it, when we use it all the time?

    Same thng with invective. It’s used constantly. However More might have used it, today it’s used as verbal bullying, to demean one’s opponent, and shame them into submission. and it’s used by all our so-called, “edgey” comedians today: Catholic, non-Catholic, atheist, anything in between. Merely as a non-Catholic, cultural issue, humor for humor’s sake appears to be a dead art. These days, it’s always got to be used to score a political point, or mock one’s enemies. It’s, essentially, political debate, carried out with a mocking grin, that barely masks the comic’s fury at, well—whatever he’s mad at, at the moment.

    Last Sphere, you raise a good point: what, actually do we mean by the term, “Good Catholic” these days? Because it seems to me that a lot of the church’s teachings these days on abortion, birth control, gay marriage and the like are being compromised, or watered down due to a rather maudlin, sloppy sentimentality, and a “We mustn’t judge!” attitude.

    I’m not Catholic myself, but this doesn’t seem, well. . .good.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    There really is a point where one’s disagreement with an institution—not just the Church—should lead one to ask “Can I still be a member in good faith of this organization? The term
    Good Catholic” has become, from what I see, far too loose and all-inclusive these days.

    If you disagree with the core tenants of the Church, you should stop calling yourself a Catholic. Yet many people seem to do this.

  • elmo

    You mean “tenets” I suppose. Not “tenants”.

  • http://sailorette.blogspot.com Foxfier

    Good luck, Rhinestone.

  • Kris

    I must preface this by saying that I am, in fact, not Catholic. I am a Christian however and am always interested by the Catholic reaction to Colbert. I also want to note that I have always had great respect and appreciation for the long history and amazing ritual of Catholicism. This is something considering that my immediate family was also against certain aspects of the religion (odd considering predominately Irish). I have always enjoyed it and felt that if I was to join a more “organized” Christian sect it would be this one.

    Now, on to the topic at hand. It always makes me kind of sad when Colbert is written about in terms of his religion because, inevitably, there are Catholics who are ready to tar and feather him because of his real or imagined sins. The fact being that none of us are perfect and yes (sinful though it may be) actually enjoying sinning or choosing to partake of sinful things such as swearing is a part of humanity. Frankly, I would not want to live in a perfect world. That’s what heaven is for. It is our flaws that make us precious as well.

    In my humble opinion I believe that Colbert is important to all people of faith. Mainly because he is about the only person with a “celebrity” status who is constantly promoting faithfulness. Quoting scripture and defining faith as important in his life should be worth something in a time where it is discriminated against to do so. Especially for a comedian or TV personality!

    I hope that all Christians, Catholic or not, appreciate that Colbert is making religion “cool” in a sense. He is taking away the stigma of having faith. The government, education system, and individual communities are pressuring faithful people to keep God and religion “in the closet” as was previously stated. Hopefully, what Colbert is doing is a step in the opposite direction. This benefits our entire nation.

    Sorry for the long post but felt the need to say something after reading so many defamatory comments about Colbert by several faithful people on several different sites.

  • Ann G

    I have watched virtually every episode of “The Colbert Report” for the past four years, and I’ve spent two of those years blogging about it. I can’t claim to know what Colbert thinks — none of us can — but I have never heard him state openly and in so many words that he supports gay marriage. He is very open in his support for gays in general because he’s a compassionate person, and I think most people infer from that position that he supports the legal right of gays to marry. Contrary to what another commenter said, I don’t believe this undermines his ability to be a Catholic role model. I find his accepting and supportive attitude toward gays to be very Christian.

    Colbert has stated many times in interviews that he was raised to approach his faith with reason — that it’s not just acceptable, but good, to question issues that he is struggling with. He’s shown a deep understanding of the Catholic faith that I admire. I can handle the humor and even the occasional well-timed expletive because I know that’s all part of his “stealth catechizing.” And I found his post-Easter “Catholic bender” bit to be hilarious. I think any Catholic with a sense of humor would. If you’ve done the Holy Week marathon (as I used to when I was a member of the parish choir), you know what that post-”bender” hangover feels like.

    For the record, I returned to the Catholic Church (after being away for two decades) not long after I started watching “The Colbert Report.” Those two things are not unrelated.

  • brother jeff

    To go from Fulton Sheen to Colbert as catechists is not a good sign probably

  • http://chrysologus.blogspot.com Adam Rasmussen

    “Denying gay people the right to get married: that’s easy. But justifying it to our grand children: that is going to be hard.” http://sephencolberumblr.tumblr.com/post/3867742509/denying-gay-people-the-right-to-get-married. The clip of him saying that at the National Press Club was also part of his spoof, epic commercial (http://www.minnpost.com/minnclips/2011/03/11/26541/colbert_spoofs_pawlentys_high-drama_commercials) he made in response to Tim Pawlenty’s epic commercial.

    It is what it is.

    [That pronouncement, however, is also correct. If things continue as they are, it WILL be hard to justify it to our Grandchildren because they simply will not understand. Not without way better catechesis than they're getting -admin]

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    To go to any contemporary celebrity as a catechist is not a good sign at all.

  • SKAY

    “To go from Fulton Sheen to Colbert as catechists is not a good sign probably”

    I agree.

  • Matt Emerson

    Skay, Rhinestone, brother jeff:

    No one is arguing that Colbert is replacing Fulton Sheen or that he is, or ought to become, THE voice for the American Catholic Church. His show is not designed to be an RCIA class. It is satire, and religious issues form a small percentage of the show’s subject matter. My only point is to consider the surprising sympathy the show demonstrates for Catholicism given Colbert’s context.

    Consider one of his interviews with Fr. James Martin, where Colbert plugs Martin’s book “My Life with the Saints” and then speaks to him about Mother Theresa’s dark night of the soul. Colbert gives Martin free reign to explain why the feeling of the absence of God does not mean the non-existence of God. I don’t know where else on television you’ll find any kind of discussion like that beyond EWTN.

    Adam: Why is it so important to ascertain Colbert’s position on gay marriage? Let’s assume he supports it. In your opinion, does this one viewpoint disqualify him from discipleship? Does this nullify everything else about his life (e.g., attending Mass, practicing corporal and spiritual works of mercy, seeking God in all things, striving to live the Beatitudes) that are included in a Catholic way of life?

    Kris and Ann G: Thanks for your candid and powerful reflections. Ann, if you feel comfortable sharing, I would love to see your blog.

  • Ann G

    Matt,

    I was one of a team of contributors at NoFactZone.net, a blog written by Colbert Report fans, for other fans of the show. We recently retired the blog (and by recently, I mean barely more than a week ago), but it’s still up if you’d like to take a look. We didn’t cover Stephen’s forays into religion very often, but when we did it always got a positive reaction. You can read one of my posts on Stephen’s faith here: http://bit.ly/lERCeh. I think the comments are more interesting than the post itself. Thanks for your interest!

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Matt, support of gay marriage wouldn’t nullify his life, or anything else about the man.

    It would, however, mean that, despite his sympathy for Catholicism, he doesn’t really support the church, and should not call himself a Catholic. There are many Protestant churches whose servies he could attend, and where he could perform acts of charity and mercy.

    The church makes it pretty clear where it stands on matters such as gay marriage, abortion, etc., and it gives no wiggle-room on such matters.

    And, in the absence of, say, priests and bishops catechizing the lay people (which they should be doing), Colbert will become the voice of the Catholic church, whether he actually wants that position or not—especially in this day and age of omnipresent mass media. Therefore, what he believes, and what he agrees, and disagrees, with the Church, are pretty important.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Ann G., the remarks on that post are interesting.

    They are not at all reassuring.

    They apparently like him because “He doesn’t preach about Jesus” (Shouldn’t a Christian do exactly that?) He believes in “Social justice” (uh-oh), he doesn’t “Shove religion down our throats”—in short, in their eyes, he’s a nice, safe, christian-lite, liberal (“social justice”), who doesn’t threaten them with Jesus, or actual preaching of the Gospel.

    In order to suceed in media, you can’t really be a friebrand—one reason I’m twitchy about the idea of the church leaving the catechizing to celebrities. (No, I wasn’t a big fan of Fulton Sheen, either.) You have to play to your audience—ergo, you can’t push Jesus, or the faith, or sin and judgment too hard; just stick to being “nice”, and do emphasize “Social justice.”

    It’s not Colbert’s fault, but Catchesis really should be done, first by bishops and priests, then by lay teachers and lay people who aren’t afraid to spread their faith. And if the world unanimously likes, and approves of you—you might not be doing your job properly! Jesus was not always popular. . .

  • sj

    “Matt, support of gay marriage wouldn’t nullify his life, or anything else about the man. It would, however, mean that, despite his sympathy for Catholicism, he doesn’t really support the church, and should not call himself a Catholic. ”

    I just don’t think that’s correct, Rhinestone. If he denied by word or deed the Trinity or the Resurrection or the Real Presence, he might not be Catholic. But support of “gay marriage” is about two or three levels away from that. Essentially, that’s a decision about how to implement a Catholic moral teaching.

    He may well be a “Bad Catholic.”


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