On Monday night, Stephen Colbert came to the defense of one of the most controversial activist groups in America: Catholic nuns.
In recent months, the Vatican has made an effort to rein in religious women whose practices subvert or otherwise deviate from official church doctrine. The crackdown began back in April, when the Vatican issued a report criticizing the largest organization of nuns in the United States for promoting “radical feminist themes.”
As a practicing Catholic, Colbert has been tracking the story closely and, in his typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, he took the opportunity to stand up for the “subversive sect of extremists.” “That’s right. Nuns are radical feminists,” he said. “I’m not surprised. Think about it: All women living together, without men, wearing baggy clothes and burning incense. You throw in Sarah McLachlan and you’ve got Lilith Fair.”
As Colbert explained, the Vatican is troubled by the nuns’ focus on fighting things like poverty, rather than abortion or gay rights, and by their questioning of church doctrine, including the ban on ordaining women. And there’s one nun in particular who’s provoked the ire of the pope: Sister Margaret Farley, whose book “Just Love,” has been singled out for allegedly subverting church doctrine on human sexuality.
“What in the world does a nun know about sex? That would be like an ultimate fighting DVD released by the Dalai Lama,” Colbert joked.
In the end, Colbert betrayed his true feelings on the controversy by inviting one “radical feminist” nun onto his show. He welcomed to the stage Sister Simone Campbell, who runs Network, a Catholic social justice lobbying group. When asked about the allegations of subversion, Campbell explained, “We’re faithful to the Gospel. We work every day to live as Jesus did in relationship with people at the margins of our society.”
She also touted the group’s upcoming nine-state bus tour, which will include a visit to Capitol Hill to lobby against Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed federal budget. She claimed the plan, with its steep cuts to social services, would “undermine the whole fabric of our society,” and that “there’s enough to go around, if we would only share.”
The segment was a textbook example of what “The Colbert Report” does so well, even compared to its lead-in, “The Daily Show.” There are plenty of nights when both shows will pile on the same political gaffe or media controversy, but it’s hard to imagine Jon Stewart giving one of his “extended interviews” to a liberal nun who espouses such earnest, unfashionable ideas about economic inequality. What sets Colbert apart is his willingness to push beyond mere satire and into the realm of advocacy.
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Follow Meredith Blake on Twitter @MeredithBlake.