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From the Outside: Jon Stewart, Satire, and the Catholic Church – Lorraine Cuddeback

Watching Jon Stewart close out his tenure on the Daily Show for the past couple of weeks, I was struck by a comment that J. J. Abrams gave: “The hole that you’re going to leave behind . . . I just gotta say, it will be seismic. . . . Honest to God, the narrative that you help give us, to navigate the madness that is this world cannot be overstated.” At first, it surprised me to hear Stewart’s work framed this way, but it turns out Abrams isn’t the only person to talk about narrative (for better or worse) in reference to the Daily Show. Stewart and the Daily Show writers have also put out not one, but two books that offer their own alternative narratives of U.S. and global history.

All this is to say that for the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about Stewart’s brand of satire and the narratives that drive it. I have been an unabashedly faithful watcher of the Daily Show since Craig Kilborne was the host, and watched the show evolve in a profound way under the leadership of Stewart. He took the helm when I was a teenager, an age when I was cynical about everything and committed to nothing. I liked Stewart immediately, in large part because we both hail from New Jersey, and his particular brand of sarcasm felt like the shared language of our state (growing up in New Jersey, you learn early to appreciate the artful, colorful deployment of profanity).

As I grew up and moved around, I knew I could turn on Stewart’s show four days a week and experience a piece of home. I’d laugh a little, and feel like there was still a strain of sanity in a world that seemed increasingly scary, dangerous, and irrational. I’ve come to understand that the world inevitably becomes scarier as we grow up, as we see with greater clarity all the bad things that exist, and often see these bad things happen to friends and family around us. We are taught about sin as children, but we only come to understand it as adults.

So I was sad to watch Stewart’s announcement in February that he was leaving the show. Some, however, were not sad. I was surprised to hear, mostly from more conservative-leaning family members, that it was Stewart’s portrayal of the Catholic Church they objected to the most. Though Stewart is mostly known for his political satire targeting congress or Fox News, there were moments when his sharp pen took on the church, which led to differing responses among Catholics.

Shortly after Stewart’s initial announcement, U.S. Catholic published a brief piece arguing that “With Jon Stewart’s exit, the Catholic Church loses one of its best critics.” Scott Alessi describes Stewart as “an unflinching social commentator who has brought a unique insight to issues in the Catholic Church–and the world at large–to an audience that often tunes out the real news media. And somehow, he’s managed to do it with a touch of humor.” Following Stewart’s last episode, Sam Stewart, S.J. of America wrote a more critical piece that celebrated Stewart’s ability to puncture illusions of cultural self-celebration, but also warned that this alone was not enough to combat the bullsh*t Stewart pleaded with us to recognize. I agree with the basic idea behind both of these pieces, but I want to spend time looking at how Stewart actually treated the Catholic Church in its appearances on his show.

Satire is premised on subverting, ridiculing, and making foolish certain shared cultural narratives, particularly narratives that hold power. At its best, satire reveals destructive narratives we take for granted, and under the caricatures and crudeness offers an alternative imagination of how things could be. If satire requires narrative, it also requires ethics. Narrative, after all, is an ethical act. On one level, a narrative sets the stage for approaching an ethical problem and influences the answer.

Satirical narratives have an ethic, though it’s not necessarily an ethic of honesty or responsibility. Stewart’s narratives were trademarked by their liberal worldview, his satire honed by his resistance to “Indecision 2000,”by his grief over 9/11, and the following “Mess O’Potamia.” Stewart had an agenda, but it was never a hidden one. Angered, frustrated by the failure of media and government —places where virtues of honesty, truth, and responsibility should reign —Stewart wrote narratives that targeted loci of power, that cast political leaders as buffoons, and our news outlets as incompetent at best, at worst viciously deceitful. He was not trying to write truth in a journalistic sense, though he often stumbled upon it. Stewart’s primary goal was exposing lies fed to us by the powers and principalities.

So when Stewart turned his satire on the Catholic Church, this was not a bad thing, though it often stung. Like Stewart’s satire of our government, his way of joking about the church hit a critical turning point in the early 2000s. If 9/11 changed how Stewart criticized politicians, the sex abuse crisis breaking in 2002 changed how he spoke of the Catholic Church and clergy. In May 2001, Stewart offered (relatively) lighthearted jokes about John Paul II’s visits to Syria, Greece, and Malta. By April 2002, Stewart and then-correspondent Rob Corddry were skewering Cardinal Law. The change in tone is significant. In the shift from overdone jokes about the Crusades to the line, “If a priest molests you, for God’s sake get a receipt,” the church moved from being an old institution of minor social interest to an institution that is colluding with the powers and principalities we are meant to resist.

Stewart’s coverage of the unfolding abuse cases was harsh, at times angry. Later, Corddry and Stewart would do a segment simply titled “Stop Fondling Kids.” The harshness carried over throughout most of Benedict XVI’s papacy, and the objects of critique expanded, including politicized threats of excommunication and the initial objections to the HHS mandate. But the scandal remained a touchstone of Stewart’s coverage, limited it may have been, of Benedict XVI’s papacy. There were some lighthearted moments of religious mockery, such as a Da Vinci code satire. When Francis entered the picture, Stewart —like many —initially seemed to fall for the narrative of discontinuity between Francisand Benedict, and offered praise for the “humblr” pope. But the show, under John Oliver’s helm, realized quickly that Francis was not about to rewrite church teaching, and has more recently targeted discrimination against gay couples.

The latter case provides an interesting conflict of narratives. Stewart’s progressive sensibilities see the Catholic Church’s objections to the HHS mandate or to same-sex relationships as unfair and unjust. The Catholic Church, by contrast, sees its position on these topics as counter-cultural and morally right —the true moral or ethical stance.

This difference in understanding may be compared to the internal and external histories of the church that H.R. Niebuhr wrote about in The Meaning of Revelation. An “internal history” is passed on and shared within a faith community, and is grounded in that shared faith. It is the history, the narrative of a participant (pp. 37-38). “External history” is garnered from data accessible to a non-participant, from shared events and empirical facts that do not require participation to understand them. Both histories are necessary, as is the distinction between them. The historical “givenness” of an external history shapes the ongoing interpretation and meaning of an internal history, while the participatory nature of an internal history imbues it with meaning that goes beyond historical record. “The distinctions between the two types of history,” writes Niebuhr, “can not be made by applying the value judgment of true and false but must be made by reference to differences of perspective” (p. 33).

Stewart presents the Catholic Church with an external history, rendering events from an outsider’s perspective. Catholics can (and many have) object to being unfairly targeted. But the events that appear on the Daily Show are not inventions that Stewart made up. When Stewart skewers the moral authority of the Church on something like birth control, it is because that authority was undermined by the systemic failure to protect children from abuse. In crying “oppression” over the HHS mandate, it must not be forgotten how often and frequently the Catholic Church aligned with the powers and principalities. And there will be times when the church does need to take a counter-cultural stance —even then, it would do good to remember that there are times when, in trying to protect itself for a good reason, it still does so in a way that collaborates with the powers rather than resists them. As a Catholic, I think finding myself as a subject of satire is a good reminder of this.

And interestingly enough, Stewart’s bits do hold to their own ethical code. Stewart consistently focuses on bishops, cardinals, or the pope —those with power in our church, those who walk the halls of privilege. The occasional lay person will appear, but often these are people who have sought to have some kind of power (Bill Donahue, for example). My own Catholic institution has found itself featured on the Daily Show, following the controversy over Obama’s commencement address and the pro-life protests on campus. I think it is telling that Stewart tacitly avoids rendering judgment on the pro-life position in a general sense. His sarcasm instead addresses the protests’ arguably sensationalistic and exploitative tactics, like baby dolls covered in blood. The student interviewed, by contrast, is praised for his reasonable response.

Perhaps that is what Stewart longs for, as he leaves satire behind —to be able to speak with reason. To be able to stop rendering his narratives with exaggeration and panache and speak more simply. He never saw his narratives as virtuous, never conceived of himself as a hero. Rarely did he directly involve himself in a significant social issue —though his involvement in VA reform and his concerns for the 9/11 First Responders are noted exceptions to this. His work is not the work of justice —but it is a necessary pressure valve. It helps us find time to laugh, lest we continue to despair. It allows us to start to imagine things differently —even if we don’t quite yet know what different looks like. The work of justice is to take the next step, to start building a different world.

Lorraine Cuddeback is a PhD candidate in moral theology at the University of Notre Dame. Her research is in social ethics, particularly disability and theology, Catholic social teaching, and feminist ethics. Her dissertation is about ethics, practices, and theologies of inclusion for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

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