I was clear about my love and admiration for Stephen Colbert for many years.
I found him ridiculously funny when he was on Comedy Central, and one of the first “New York-y” things I did upon moving for my job at Fordham University was to go to a taping of his show. Knowing that we were both huge fans of Lord of the Rings, in the warm-up Q&A I asked him who he thought would win in a fight to the death: Smaug or the Balrog. (I was so nervous, I don’t remember much about his answer.)
Whether he was taking down Bart Ehrman on Christ’s divinity and Philip Zambardo on the problem of evil—or explaining his understanding of hell to NPR and randomly reciting the Nicene Creed to his TV audience—Stephen Colbert was unapologetically and beautifully Catholic.
I also admired the fact that he chose guests who were often at the highest levels of their academic field, including those who challenged him. Many times the exchanges he had were quite enlightening. I still use his exchange with Peter Singer on non-human animals in several of my classes.
His status as a public Catholic superstar put him in a class by himself, and when my colleague Michael Peppard and I put our heads together for a big event at Fordham, we decided to shoot for the moon and try to get Colbert and Cardinal Timothy Dolan to have a discussion about faith, moderated by Fr. James Martin, S.J.
Somehow, the plan worked out and “The Cardinal and Colbert” played to thousands of Fordham students, faculty, and staff. I was excited to meet Stephen (and his wife Evelyn) before and after the event, and I even got to tell him how I used his shows in the classroom. The event was an absolute triumph—with Dolan even turning to Martin and saying, “This is the new evangelization.”
I was very excited to see Colbert take over The Late Show at CBS, but I must admit that, after seeing the first several shows, my interest began to wane. I couldn’t put my finger on why, precisely, but in addition to missing his Comedy Central character, it just seemed that a lot of the edge was gone.
Some of his more prescient take-downs of Donald Trump, however, have been going viral recently, and in this resistance to the president we’ve seen a bit of that edge come back. Indeed, given his ability to combine sophisticated argument with biting humor, a case can be made that Stephen Colbert is the most effective antidote to Donald Trump.
But it is striking how politically one-sided the new Colbert is at CBS. As good and important as his resistance to Trump is, some of my more conservative friends (also former Colbert diehards) have been taken aback by the imbalance. The character Colbert played on Comedy Central would often give a stronger case for conservative positions than would conservatives themselves. There is no such interesting gray area in the CBS version.
In the process of thinking about this, one friend recently asked me if I had ever seen or heard Stephen Colbert taking a stand against abortion. I paused, pondering the question. I had followed his career closely and I was kind of stunned at what, the longer I thought about it, was almost certainly the case: I could not remember a time when Stephen Colbert took a stand against abortion. The best I could come up with was a “formidable opponent” segment from 2006 on stem cell research which outlined arguments for and against.
Buzzfeed considers Colbert pro-choice. He has consistently defended the nation’s largest abortion provider, even repeating the embarrassing argument that abortion is only 3% of what Planned Parenthood does. There is no pro-life case for Planned Parenthood (an organization which depends on abortion revenue to stay in business), and a nonviolent approach to health care requires that we direct federal money for women’s health to federally qualified community health centers.
His support of Planned Parenthood doesn’t necessarily mean Colbert is broadly supportive of abortion rights, but when coupled with his general silence on the issue more generally, it isn’t a good sign.
It is possible that he is silent because he shares in a growing frustration with the traditional pro-life movement, especially one that can get behind Donald Trump as their champion. One can understand why he would not want to be associated with that. But this makes it even more important for him to speak out for his Catholic values on the welcoming, protection, and support of vulnerable lives.
Perhaps he can get behind the anti-abortion position offered by Pope Francis—one which consistently resists the throwaway culture, not just on abortion, but wherever the vulnerable are discarded.
I appeal to Stephen Colbert to stand up and be heard on the violence directed at prenatal children and the coercive social situation experienced by their mothers. The more public figures with his views stay silent on these core issues of social justice, the more pro-life values are marginalized by the gatekeepers of our public discourse as something belonging to the agenda of the conservative right.
This is a situation that, I hope Colbert agrees, cannot be countenanced by a faithful Catholic. Matthew 25 insists that we defend and support the least among us wherever we find them–and that we will not be held blameless if we fail.