Is Stephen Colbert the face of U.S. Catholicism?

I admit I am a big fan of Stephen Colbert, or, rather, of the pompous, self-important character he portrays almost exclusively — a character said to be based on Fox News heavyweight Bill O’Reilly.

Stephen Colbert, left, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan. (The Associated Press)

Stephen Colbert, left, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan. (The Associated Press)

One of my favorite quotes come from the premiere of The Colbert Show, seen nightly on Comedy Central: “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.”

To say Colbert is irreverent is like saying the French like wine. Who else could get away with setting up a Twitter account for former President Bill Clinton with the handle “@PrezBillyJeff?”

Colbert is also Catholic, a bio factoid he frequently weaves into his commentary. He was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in Charleston, S.C., on James Island, the youngest of 11 children in a Catholic family.

Thursday, Colbert hosted the 68th annual Al Smith Dinner, named for the first Catholic presidential candidate in American history. Held at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in NYC, the event raised $3 million for New York’s neediest children.

The event was notable for Colbert’s funny lines. Here are a few:

“You could not have found a more perfect keynote speaker tonight because I am proud to be America’s most famous Catholic. And I’m sure the cardinal is thinking, ‘Stephen, pride is a sin.’ Well, cardinal so is envy. So we’re even.”

“By the way, is the pope here? Pope Francis, are you here? Because if you were we probably wouldn’t know because His Humbleness would be out washing the feet of the coat check guy or something. We get it, you’re modest.”

“If Pope Francis were throwing tonight’s party we wouldn’t be in white tie at the Waldorf. We’d be in sweat pants crammed into a corner booth at the IHOP.”

I found the first comment interesting. Although good for a laugh, it’s not the first time Colbert has used it. And Cardinal Timothy Dolan seems to be very fond of the comedian, even appearing on his show earlier this year.

It made me think: is it better for the church if Colbert is more the face of Catholicism than even the popular Dolan?

As I wrote earlier this year about comedian and Catholic Jim Gaffigan, the church needs young, hip role models.

A recent piece in Slate suggested Colbert is replacing not Dolan, but Justice Anton Scalia as America’s most famous Catholic.

The author argues that Colbert especially resonates now that the liberal Pope Francis is heading the church.

Stephen Colbert is the greatest thing to happen to American Catholics since Vatican II. He provides day-to-day proof that devout Catholicism can coexist with critical thinking, irreverence, a guiding belief in equal rights, and a fundamentally anti-authoritarian worldview—by, for example, dishing on the papal doctrine of social justice for the poor with Colbert Report chaplain Jim Martin (editor of America magazine), or breaking character during a congressional panel on rights for migrant farm workers by paraphrasing Scripture: “Whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me.” Colbert is America’s Sunday school teacher and “Catholicism’s best pitch man,” as Patheos.com’s Matt Emerson put it in a beautifully argued 2011 piece. But until now, what he’s been pitching hasn’t necessarily been what the Vatican has been selling.

What do you think? Is the comedian a good spokesman for the Catholic Church?

About John Hilton

I grew up in Susquehanna County, Pa. and graduated Syracuse University with a dual degree in journalism/political science in 1998. After working for nearly three years for a weekly paper in upstate New York, I came to southcentral Pennsylvania. I spent 13 years as a reporter and editor for The Sentinel in Carlisle and joined the York Daily Record as religion reporter in September 2011.
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