Joy: The Theology of Stephen Colbert & Pope Francis

Stephen Colbert and Pope Francis are probably the two most famous Catholics alive. They are also two of the most powerful moral voices of our age. Whether through jokes or homilies, they both, in their unique ways, give voice to the depressing problems – the hypocrisy of the powerful or the marginalization of the weak – that we would rather ignore. So… why do they have so much joy?  

Photo illustration from Slate

Photo illustration from Slate

Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation to the church is called, The Joy of the Gospel or Evangelii Gaudium. He has been unequivocal: joy ought to be the mark of a Christian, and a Christian without one is either not one or is sick. Stephen Colbert, who once called the operational system behind The Colbert Report a “joy machine,” makes no bones about linking joy to his faith. He reportedly used to tape a sign to computer that read, “Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.” In fact, when Colbert was asked what he would ask Pope Francis, he said, “How do you achieve joy?’

A joyous demeanor is not exactly what we expect from popes. Francis, with his perpetually raised, smiling cheeks, defies the image of a stodgy pope who issues cold proclamations and judgments from a detached Vatican. Nor is it, truthfully, what we expect from comedians. When Joel Lovell interviewed Colbert for GQ, he asked him how it is that Colbert is so genuinely grounded and joyful, without no signs of any of the “anger or open-woundedness of so many other comedians.”

It is a question for both of them: What is at the bottom of this shared theology of joy, one that does not escape but in fact embraces harsh realities?

It is a certain kind of love. Colbert, in an interview with Salt + Light Media (Catholic outlet), defines joy as something that hangs “in the expression of love of the moment you’re in right now and the love of the person you’re with right now.” You get the sense from listening to him that this is a man who is simply grateful and happy to be alive, and he wants an object to which to direct his gratitude—and since he was raised Catholic, that object is “God.” It is an earthy love of “what is” that leads upward to the “One Who Is.”

For Francis, the direction seems to move downwards. As he writes in The Joy of the Gospel, joy is “born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.” But it also moves horizontally: “We need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives and to discover that this is itself a source of greater joy. Mission is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people.”

For both of them, the movement of joy is a movement from fearful isolation to joyous community. One of the things, Colbert speculates in his Salt + Light interview, that keeps people from giving to others - and thus experiencing the joy of giving - is the fear that if they give, they will not have anything for themselves. Fear isolates, Colbert stresses, whereas joy connects; you “can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time.” Francis similary notes in Evangelii Gaudium that when our “interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt.”

Love releases one from an inwardness that is anxiously preoccupied with its own concerns and interests, and creates space for others. And that encounter with an Other - whether God or man - leads to joy. True joy cannot be contained but seeks to be shared, which is how Francis moves from joy to evangelism, adopting the phrase “missionary joy.”

Through love, Colbert and Francis befriend suffering; through love, they find joy. To speak truth and to laugh, almost at the same time—are these not the miraculous marks of faith?