As you have likely heard (it was pretty unavoidable) last week Pope Benedict XVI became the first Roman Pontiff since Pope Gregory XII (1415) to step down, and the first since Pope Celestine V (1294) to abdicate without coercion. As with his reign, the resignation of Pope Benedict was tainted with rumors of scandal, with the implication that he resigned to avoid dealing with it. (Rather than the stated reason: his failing health.) Stephen Colbert, satirist for Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report, commemorated this with an ongoing segment, Popewatch 2013.
On Monday and Tuesday, February 25 and 26, Colbert, the self-styled “cardinal of basic cable,” dedicated a segment of the show to highlighting issues that were on the minds of many American Catholics: the possible sex scandal and the existence of multiple popes. (The latter is a large concern for some, as Benedict has decided to keep both his papal title, remaining Benedict XVI, Pope Emeritus, and maintain residence at the Vatican. This harkens to the last time two pontiffs maintained the title, the Western Schism, which ultimately resulted in the abdication of Pope Gregory XII.)
On Thursday, February 28, the Pope’s resignation went into effect. According to Colbert, “We have been disenpopenated. We have undergone a popendectomy.” The second half of this clip focused on Pope souvenirs, and the blow-out sales that Roman vendors are initiated to move merchandise with pictures of Pope Benedict. (The issue is that in the next few weeks a new pontiff will be elected and pilgrims to the Vatican will want souvenirs featuring the acting head of the church rather than the “Pope Emeritus.”) Colbert took a few shots at the materialism evident within this move, citing an amended scripture: “Just like Jesus says in Matthew 21:13, ‘Look for the souvenir stalls in the temple, just past the money changers. You can’t miss it!'”
This critique of Christian consumerism is not a new one. Many criticisms have come before, but this is one quite appropriately made, as the products are targeted at visitors to the Vatican. (The actual text of Matthew 21:13 reads: “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers.'” NIV) However, this one is done through humor, in a fun and entertaining way, rather than through theology or intellectual critique. This mediation difference makes it accessible to an audience who, for the most part, are under the age of 30 without a college degree.
There are several major threads throughout Popewatch, which are present in most of Colbert’s interactions with religion. Foremost is irreverence. Despite being a Catholic himself, Colbert treats the papal resignation the same way that he would treat any other story – as a joke. He talks about possible Vatican sex parties and then says, “I’m not going to sugar coat it – I can’t, it’s Lent.” He compares pontiffs to Batman and Gollum. He doesn’t treat Catholicism with the reverence or infallibility that a member of the hierarchy would, but at the same time, he does not simply condemn the church for its failings. Yet, the irreverence does not distract from the fact that these are important events, both generally and to him personally.
Another trend is that of accessibility. There is no demand for special knowledge or even in-depth thought, to access the message. Being on Comedy Central, there is no air of intellectualism or elite rhetoric. All of the information necessary to understand the story, or the joke, is provided or common cultural knowledge. Even in the case of references that are not obviously explained, as in the case of Matthew 21:13 above, audience members not familiar with that scripture will recognize that the statement is incongruent and understand that a joke is being made.
The entire point of the show, as stated, is for entertainment. Humor enables Colbert to say the same things his audience, mostly comprised of liberals, hates the talking heads on Fox for saying. (This 2007 New York Magazine article has an interesting quiz discerning statements between Colbert and Ann Coulter.)This allows people who would normally avoid “the news” to watch and identify as part of the audience. Audiences are able to watch it at their convenience online (as I did.)