By Becky Garrison
In James Martin, SJ’s bio, he describes himself as a “Jesuit priest, editor at large of America Magazine and author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage. What he didn’t put in this bio was his role as chaplain for The Colbert Report during its nine year run on Comedy Central. Now that fellow Catholic Steven Colbert’s satirical news show has left the airwaves and the character of Stephen Colbert patterned after Fox News host Bill O’Reilly is no more, we decided to email Martin for his insights into how this show engaged with the Roman Catholic Church and the larger religious landscape.
You’ve spoken before about the role of laughter and mirth in one’s faith journey. Can you tell us more about why you think this is so important?
It’s an essential part of anyone’s faith journey. In the Christian worldview, joy is the beginning and end of the story of Jesus. His birth was announced to Mary, who immediately runs with great joy to share the news with her cousin Elizabeth. And the response of the disciples to the Resurrection is one of unparalleled joy. Really, the whole point of the Christian message is joy. Jesus said, “I came to give you joy, and that your joy may be complete.” The people who are missing out on joy are missing the point.
For those not familiar with The Colbert Report, can you offer a brief synopsis of the differences between the character of “Stephen Colbert” and the person Stephen Colbert, with a particular focus on how they both approach the topic of religion.
The character of course was, in the words of the person Stephen Colbert, “an idiot.” And the guests were supposed to treat the character as such. So essentially you needed to be exceedingly patient with this particular character and do a lot of explaining. And my sense was that that character, that is, “Stephen Colbert” had not done much reading in theology, at least in contemporary theology. But the person Stephen Colbert has a very deep understanding of religion and is widely read. I would always smile at the people who came on his show thinking that he didn’t know anything about religion, only to be disabused of that notion pretty quickly.
When did you first come into contact with Stephen Colbert?
Well, I came on the show for the first time in 2007 to speak about an op-ed I wrote for the New York Times on Mother Teresa. This was after her book Come, Be My Light, came out and she was talking about her “dark night,” a time of great spiritual darkness and even doubt. After a few more appearances, he introduced me as “Chaplain to the Colbert Nation,” which made me smile. Needless to say, at that point, I had no idea what that meant! Basically, I came on whenever he asked, usually to talk about some religious or spiritual matter. Often it was in response to some news about the Church, or something that a Pope had said or done. So my responsibilities were fairly flexible! It wasn’t a terribly onerous ministry.
Why did you feel compelled to set Colbert straight about Mother Teresa?
The question that the character brought up was whether or not Mother Teresa was in hell as a punishment for her doubt, which was revealed in that book, a collection of her letters and diaries. Needless to say, doubt is not a sin. Some of the saints have doubted, and even the Apostle Thomas doubts before he sees the Risen Christ. So you have to draw a distinction between doubt and disbelief.
Why did you tell Colbert that you don’t need possessions to be happy?
Because it’s true! Simply having things does not make us happy. Look at all the examples of wealthy people who are miserable. You can read about the well-off and their miseries almost every day in the paper and on the web. We’re not supposed to be owned by our possessions. Of course, everyone needs a certain amount of possessions to live: you need a place to live, you need food, and you need clothing. And if you’re raising children you need even more. But the idea that buying more things will make you happy is demonstrably false. You’re trying to fill up an emptiness in your life that only God can fill. Spiritual writers call this the “God-shaped hole,” the space in our hearts only God can fill. Possessions simply cannot do that. Sometimes they make it worse.
When asked for your favorite clip, why did you cite your conversation with Colbert regarding Glenn Beck’s critique of “social justice?”
Because it was so much fun. As I recall, Glenn Beck had said that any Catholic who belonged to a church that preached social justice should leave. Which is insane. Because the Catholic Church has preached social justice universally since at least the late 19th century. More to the point, Jesus tells us that the litmus test for admission to heaven will be how we take care of the poor, the “least of these,” as he calls them. And we help the poor not only through charity, but by asking questions about the structures that keep them poor. As the great Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara once said, “When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”
When commenting on the changes in the Catholic Mass, Colbert said “No way.” How did you respond?
Of course his character doesn’t want any changes. His character was a kind of caricature of a rock-ribbed conservative who resists change. That was around the time that the new English-language translation to the Mass was coming out, as I recall. But change is part of the Church. The Church has been changing since the time of Saints Peter and Paul.
In a conversation with Colbert about God’s job performance, why did you use the word “shit?”
You’ve stirred up some bigger controversies yourself, for example, when Pope Benedict visited the US, you said that you wanted to step off the balcony as soon as he stepped onto it.
Well, I would want to retract that comment today. What I meant was that Cardinal Ratzinger was not my first choice for pope, because he had just fired my boss, the editor of America magazine. But, as I said, I would retract that, because it was ungracious and said off the cuff. In fact, I was greatly edified by Pope Benedict’s humility in resigning the papacy. It takes a great man to do that.
You seem to have a much higher opinion of Pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit who by all appearances is in sync with your values.
I’m happy to talk about my brother Jesuit and how happy he makes me as a Catholic.
Colbert, on the other hand, critiqued Pope Francis’ comment that redemption is available for all, including atheists.
Once again, the character is a bit addle-brained. But what the Pope is saying is that Christ offers redemption for everyone. And God’s mercy is much larger than we can understand
How do you think your bosses (NY Archbishop Dolan, Pope Benedict, and Pope Francis) rated The Colbert Report’s commentary on the Roman Catholic Church?
I don’t want to speak for them, needless to say. But I do doubt that Pope Benedict and Pope Francis were watching The Colbert Report closely. Then again, who knows? Cardinal Dolan, on the other hand, was happy to be guest on the show. So I would imagine he was happy with the show, even though he may not have agreed with the critiques on the church. But, again, I can’t speak for them.
In one of your appearances on the show you discuss income inequality with Colbert. Do you see satire as a particularly valuable tool for discussing such a serious issue?
As I see it, the income inequality debate often reveals that some wealthy people are unwilling to see the effects of disparities of income. So a little satire, that is, poking fun at anyone who is affluent and out of touch with the reality of poverty, can be helpful. Remember, one of the aims of being a Christian is not only to comfort the afflicted but also to afflict the comfortable. Satire is a tool that helps us do that.
Is there any kind of historical tradition of Catholic satire, and, if so, how does Colbert fit into it?
Well, of course, there have been Catholic satirists for as long as there has been a Catholic church. In modern times, I think that his most recent progenitor was someone like George Carlin, who had a lot of fun poking fun at the church. The main difference is that I think most people knew that Stephen was a devout Catholic whereas Mr. Carlin’s religious leanings were kept more mysterious, perhaps on purpose by him.
What role do you think satire plays in holding up a mirror to the controversies plaguing the Catholic Church?
That’s a good question. There have been many controversies in the Catholic Church recently, and sometimes satire helps us to see things in a fresh light. It punctures our sense of self-importance. And that’s always a good thing, no matter who you are in the church.
Ok then do you think that Colbert has changed public opinion about Catholics and, if so, how and in what ways?
Yes, I do. I think by virtue of his prominence, he reminded people that you could be Catholic and be: (a) intelligent; (b) witty and (c) a good guy.
Colbert’s closest contemporary and collaborator is Jon Stewart, who speaks a lot about how he and his comedy relate to Jewishness. Do you have any thoughts on how Colbert’s act relates to Catholic-ness as such? Are any of the tropes of the show (pomp and ceremony, wordplay, etc.) things that register as in some way or especially Catholic to him?
Oh I wouldn’t say so. I think the show mainly relied on Stephen’s inventiveness, and brilliance is both ecumenical and interfaith. The show itself, I think, wasn’t specifically “Catholic.”
Any thoughts about how Colbert’s private religious beliefs seem to impact his public persona?
Probably best not to break confidences here.
Becky Garrison contributes to a range of outlets including The Guardian, Religion Dispatches, The Humanist, Believe Out Loud, and American Atheist. Her seven books include Roger Williams’ Little Book of Virtues, and Red and Blue God, Black and Blue Church.