By ZACH NOBLE
Scene: You, a self-professed “devout” member of a faith that teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman, are interviewing a famous lesbian and talking gay marriage.
“There are things I believe that I know are crazy,” you tell her. “I know they’re not true.”
Whoa! Are you about to wax theological about the ways your church has got it wrong?
“Guardian angels: not real,” you say. “I totally believe in guardian angels.”
In the above feel-good interview, Stephen Colbert admits he’s religious. He asks for (and doesn’t really get) an answer from Ellen Page about whether she empathizes with sincere religious objections to gay marriage, but he doesn’t directly address his own church’s teaching.
“It’s almost as if lesbian couples are like all other couples,” Colbert quips after watching a clip from Page’s upcoming film.
This interview epitomizes the utter weirdness of Colbert’s public faith.
While the "Colbert Report" was running, Colbert would acknowledge his Catholicism with a blowhard’s bravado—reciting the entire Nicene Creed, for instance—but he also skewered the church’s sexual ethics and mounted a “legendary defense of Planned Parenthood.” One time he “gave up being Catholic for Lent” (which I fault for being a lame joke).
With his switch from Comedy Central to CBS, Colbert has shed his faux conservative persona and become more outspokenly liberal, celebrating the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling this summer.
Of course, while he may differ with Catholic teaching on some issues, Colbert loves the Catholic Church.
“If we love something we can make fun of it,” he told Father Thomas Rosica this fall. “We need to see the divine sense of humor in some things.”
He’s got limits, though.
“[I]t wouldn’t feel good for me, it wouldn’t be obeying my own conscience, I suppose, to make jokes about the sacraments, or specifically the Eucharist,” Colbert told Rosica.
Making jokes like, I don’t know, swapping Communion wafers for condoms?
Not that Colbert hasn't also spoken sincerely about his faith. In a truly touching GQ interview, Colbert talked about the tragedy—the deaths of his father and two of his brothers—that left him and his mother essentially living alone and how she imparted her strong faith to him.
“[O]ur lives are compendiums of loss and change and what we make of it,” wrote interviewer Joel Lovell. “I've never met anyone who's faced that reality more meaningfully than Stephen Colbert.”
He lifted his arms as if to take in the office, the people working and laughing outside his door, the city and the sky, all of it. "And the world," he said. "It's so…lovely. I'm very grateful to be alive, even though I know a lot of dead people." The urge to be grateful, he said, is not a function of his faith. It's not "the Gospel tells us" and therefore we give thanks. It is what he has always felt: grateful to be alive. "And so that act, that impulse to be grateful, wants an object. That object I call God. Now, that could be many things. I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I'll start there. That's my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next—the catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings."
And further in his defense, Colbert has been outspoken on some Catholic issues, mainly social justice, dropping the primed-for-Facebook line:
But as for the entirety of his faith?
The way he presents it publicly, it often comes across as if it’s largely a cultural thing for him, intellectual miscellany to fuel trivia contests. It seems as if his knowledge of Catholicism is akin to his knowledge of Tolkien: nerdy stuff he’s personally very into, but c’mon, he’s not actually going to slay orcs!
Look, I know the guy is a comedian and walks weird, fine lines between funny and offensive all the time. But in his outspoken public identity as a Catholic, Colbert leaves a great many moral questions unanswered.
Getting back to the Page interview: Colbert wades into the discussion of gay rights in a very supportive way (Page was, after all, promoting "Freeheld," a film all about the legal pain faced by gay couples pre-Obergefell). He mentions his faith. Then he sidesteps.
Does he think the Catholic Church’s teaching, which has long trumpeted chastity of all stripes, is wrong? If so, why and how? And for that matter, what about abortion, a much thornier moral question given the possibility that human life is being ended?
Maybe his sidestepping is a popular survival tactic.
Maybe it’s just logistics—he obviously doesn’t have time to run full theological discussions every episode of his shows.
Or maybe it’s a product of uncertainty, an uncertainty that, admittedly, lingers in the hearts of many believers.
“I have a morality,” Colbert told GQ. “I don't know if it's the best morality.”
Zach Noble is a journalist who has covered everything from the OPM hack to a rescue dog's retirement party. He's been wrestling to reconcile his bleeding heart Catholicism with his pragmatic libertarianism since that freshman year love affair with Ayn Rand. He tweets erratically as @thezachnoble.