Does Stephen Colbert's progressive Catholicism still make some journalists nervous?

Forget, for a moment, whatever you are thinking right now about American politics.

Just think about journalism, for a moment.

Forget what you think about Vice President Joe Biden. If you are, like me, one of America's surviving pro-life Democrats, or you are a traditional Catholic, try to forget what you know about Biden's political career on legislation linked to abortion and how he has tried to mesh his actions with his acceptance of core doctrines in his Catholic faith. For a moment, forget his loyal-soldier work in the current administration.

Now, also try to forget for a moment what you think of the laugh-to-keep-from crying humor of funny man Stephen Colbert.


Lay aside, if you can, whatever you think he does or does not believe when it comes to the fine details, especially on moral theology, of the Catholic Catechism he taught as a leader in his New York-suburb parish during his Comedy Central years. If you are a traditionalist, when it comes to Catholic doctrine, go ahead and assume that Colbert is a "progressive," whatever that term means these days.

Then again, be honest and wrestle with the content of the nights when Colbert embraced and riffed with Catholic conservatives or shredded some liberals, on his old talk show.

Now, after saying all of that, watch the Late Night interview between Biden and Colbert and ask yourself a question about journalism: How would you deal with the content of this chat without facing the fact that its intimacy and depth (unless they are both really good fakers and I've seen people on CNN suggest that) is rooted in the fact that this is a pair of Catholic guys talking about faith and family?

Looking at Colbert, is it possible -- whether his work inspires you or troubles you -- to deal with his talent, his brain and his heart without taking into account the content of his Catholic faith and its role in his grief-haunted life? This was the subject of one of my recent On Religion columns ("From John Henry Newman to Stephen Colbert: Ancient truths on suffering and death") and the topic surfaced again in a follow-up post here at GetReligion.

Well, this past week kept adding layers of news content on top of this topic -- leading up to the Biden interview -- and provided the hook for this week's "Crossroads" podcast, with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.

Because of the political content, the Biden interview received lots of news coverage. In most cases, journalists struggled to describe why the encounter was so intense. Here is a key passage from The Daily Beast, which wrestled with some of the religion content:

Albeit a television performance by two very experienced performers, the 20-minute session was also just two Irish Catholic guys with a great deal in common, chatting cozily as though they were sitting together in a neighborhood bar, and not under TV lights at the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Their conversation was not especially journalistic, however, and would never be confused with the crisp interrogations of a typical Washington Sunday show.
It was less a news-making interview with a prominent public official than a display of the sort of easy authenticity that at least one of Biden’s potential rivals -- indeed the putative frontrunner in the Democratic race -- finds it exceedingly difficult to master.

In other words, this event was news because it wasn't really news? It was news because it centered on non-political topics that, on multiple levels, are more likely to connect with ordinary Americans? Is that the point?

Well, what reality is at the heart of those statements?

As the interview with Biden got rolling, Colbert, a devout Roman Catholic who has taught Sunday school, prompted the vice president to discuss the role of faith in his life.
Biden said he gets an “enormous sense of solace” from the rituals and beliefs of his religion, although sometimes keeping his faith is a challenge in the face of adversity.     
“I go to mass and I’m able to be just alone, even in a crowd,” Biden told Colbert. “It’s just a place you can go.”

Actually, according to the Associated Press Stylebook, that would be "Mass," with a large "M." As our own Bobby Ross Jr., has been suggesting lately, I think it's fair to ask if all of these AP style errors linked to religion are mere typos.

This leads into a dialogue between the two men that would make little, if any, sense without the context of their shared faith. Yes, that familiar term -- "theodicy" -- looks in the background.

Colbert noted the obvious -- that life can be hard.
“My mom had an expression: What’s the use of being Irish if you don’t know your life is going to break your heart,” he told Biden, while Biden -- whose first wife and young daughter were killed 43 years ago in an automobile accident that grievously injured his sons Beau and Hunter -- pointed out that his interviewer was himself no stranger to devastating tragedy.
When the 51-year-old Colbert was 10 -- exactly 41 years ago on September 11, two years after the then-30-year-old Biden lost half his family -- Colbert’s physician-father and two of his school-age brothers died in a plane crash during an attempted landing in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I marvel at the ability of people who absorb hurt and just get back up,” Biden said. “You’re one of them, old buddy. Losing your dad when you’re a kid... It’s like asking what made your mother do it every day?”
Colbert chimed in: “She had to take care of me.”
At which the vice president offered a rare moment of levity: “I imagine that would be a hell of a job.”

Now, in Colbert's case, this is precisely the theological territory that he covered, in shocking depth, in that much-discussed GQ interview, "The Late, Great Stephen Colbert." If you haven't read that yet, please do so.

This was the Beast's second deep dive into Colbert's faith in recent days. In the first, Colbert made it clear that he is willing to poke fun, from time to time, when it comes to the institution that is his church. But the actual mysteries of the faith? No way.

This material was quite striking. The key: no jokes about sacraments.

“It wouldn’t feel right for me, it 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 … a nacho cheese Eucharist joke … not. I mean, the church is an important part of my life, I would be crazy if I didn’t make jokes about it.”

And then:

“Faith ultimately can’t be argued, faith has to be felt,” continued Colbert. “And hopefully you can still feel your faith fully, and let your mind have a logical life of its own, and they do not defy each other, but complement each other, because logic itself, I don’t think, for me, and you know -- Aquinas might say differently -- logic itself will not lead me to God. And, so, hopefully I can use my mind to make my jokes, and not deny my love for God at the same time.”

In our chat, Wilken kept stressing that this kind of talk is simply not normal celebrity Godtalk. Quite frankly, neither one of us is used to running into this kind of content in popular culture (and I've been studying this stuff for decades).

But does it matter? As news? As content to be addressed in journalism?

On one level, Colbert may be a breakthrough communicator for the Religious Left, even if he is not a natural fit in that niche on each and ever doctrine. Yet I find it interesting that some mainstream, hard-news journalists still hesitate, when covering these stories, to quote what this man is saying.

Last night, I watched a parade of CNN talking heads discussing the Biden interview, and asking why it was on Colbert's show, and they all focused on the brilliance to reaching out to that audience in an entertainment setting. No one talked about this as a meeting of two progressive Catholics who each understand the power of grief and the determination that it can inspire.

Watch the Biden interview. How do you cover this event without taking the framework of faith seriously?

Enjoy the podcast.

IMAGE: Front page thumbnail photo from YouTube/CBS.

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