On Friday, September 14, Fordham University hosted Stephen Colbert, celebrity comedian and satirist, and Timothy Cardinal Dolan, Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, in a public conversation on humor and joy in the spiritual life, an event, according to Laurie Goodstein, that “may have been the most successful Catholic youth evangelization event since Pope John Paul II last appeared at World Youth Day.” I was one of the lucky 3,000 people in the packed gymnasium, watching live an event that, in the words of Fr. James Martin, SJ, the program moderator and one of the key organizers, was “only marginally less complicated than arranging the Second Vatican Council.” It was also more carefully guarded than a Vatican Council, proceeding under a media embargo.
Of course, in this world of social media, no embargo is airtight. A handful of students, professors, and journalists kept a Twitter stream running with live updates on the event (see the official #DolanColbert or the coined-on-the-spot #dolbert). The morning after saw pieces in The New York Times and Washington Post. But given the celebrity status of both these men—CNN wanted to broadcast the event live—this may have been as close to a media blackout as we can see anymore.
When news of the media blackout spread in early August, there was understandable frustration. As David Gibson wrote for the Religious News Service, choosing not to broadcast the event as widely as possible “rob[bed] the Catholic Church of a valuable opportunity to show the faith in a positive light and to an audience – Colbert’s, mainly – that might otherwise tune out churchmen like Dolan.” If you read through the comments Gibson’s piece generated, it is also clear that the media blackout prevented conservative Catholics the opportunity to distinguish between Colbert’s character as a right-wing blowhard and the man himself.
But carefully controlling the media presence is also what allowed a sincere, earnest conversation between two faithful Catholics who embody pretty serious differences on the spectrum of Catholic social and political views. The first time the Cardinal and Colbert met in person was as honorees at Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People dinner, during which Colbert, in character as the event MC, packed two power-punches aimed at the good Cardinal, including a comparison with another honoree, Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx: “No one, no one has done more to control women’s bodies, except maybe Cardinal Dolan.”
What Colbert could not have said in character at that dinner was that when talking with the Cardinal casually that same night, he asked him to pray for his son, who would receive the sacrament of confirmation the following day. Or that he once lost a role in a comedy troupe for refusing to perform a joke that involved pretending a Ritz cracker was the consecrated host (the communion wafer Catholics believe is the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist).
In this age of media saturation and simulation, where reality gives way to rhetoric and a sound bite is more powerful than a sermon, there is little room for sincerity or uncertainty. Watching the two men improvise their way out of their public characters into some kind of common space was perhaps the greatest gift those of us in the room were given. And in exchange, we gave the speakers our own gift: a space for humility, a spiritual haven from the cult of celebrity and media saturation, where two Christians could find a way to speak to each other and with each other in the witness of others who might be struggling along the same path. In this regard, the blackout was a gift of light.
Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Assistant Professor of Modern Protestant Theology at Fordham University (starting Fall 2012) and the Co-Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary.
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