Stephen Colbert and why I am uncomfortable with full communion with the Roman Catholic Church

150909075125-late-show-colbert-0909-super-169Let me start by saying I adore Stephen Colbert. I really do. I watch the Late Show now, which I never did. My heart grows 2 sizes when he says, “Nation…”, even though I am Canadian. I also deeply admire his public statements of faith, and how he talks about his faith wherever he is because it is so ingrained in his life that it can’t help but be visible.

There. Have I disqualified myself as a Colbert hater?

On Sunday night (September 13, 2015) Witness on Salt + Light aired an interview with Stephen Colbert and Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB. It was clearly pre-Late Show airing because of the Santa beard. He does a beautiful piece around minute 6 about the difference between an idiot and a fool. He also quotes CS Lewis on humour.

One portion was posted on Sojourners under the headline Stephen Colbert, LIfelong Catholic, on Hearing a Female Priest Celebrate the Eucharist. In this particular portion, he describes a time when the Eucharist “was most real to me…a time I didn’t receive it.”. He describes a high Anglican mass celebrated by a woman where, for him, hearing the words of consecration from a female voice opened up yet another perspective through which to view the action of the Eucharist, that all of our bodies are included in the Body of Christ, and we all give our bodies to the Body as Christ gave His. The fact that it was a woman made it more obvious to him because the words were clearly being said by someone who he did not perceive as a priest.

I am an ecumenist, and I firmly believe that, when we come to the table, we can not respect difference if we are all trying to be the same. I grew up Baptist in a Baptist-Roman Catholic community. The rules for going to a Catholic church, according to my mother, were “When they stand, you stand, when they kneel, you sit, and when they go up for communion, YOU STAY PUT.” As an Anglican, I kneel now, and I go up to receive a blessing rather than staying put. I respect the boundaries as much as I am able.

When Stephen Colbert said, “someone I don’t perceive as a priest”, it hurt. I know it is true for him. I know why it is true for him. I can not be dogmatically academic about it. Being a priest and being a woman is who I am. It is who God created and called me to be. He is not, as some are saying, promoting woman priests, or even questioning the Roman Catholic doctrine on ordination and the place of women in the church. So, I feel it is important to point out, when someone like Stephen Colbert, such a witness of the social gospel, makes that distinction, because we are quick to align him with equality under Christ. And that is not where he is.

I respect that. We are separate churches. My husband’s family is Roman Catholic so sometimes, in my life, the two churches intersect, but otherwise, for most of us, they are two different expressions of the same faith in Christ.

The Anglican Communion around the world is in the midst of discerning the work of the Spirit around a few things. It causes conflict and, sometimes, it puts us out of joint with our ecumenical partners. Sometimes, when we make a controversial move, we receive a letter from one of our partners, including the Roman Catholic church, warning us that, if we proceed, it will damage our relationship and force the other to create more boundaries.

Now, first of all, these kinds of pre-emptive strikes are harmful to dialogue that is truly based in discernment of the movement of the Holy Spirit. As long as we are working things out, the role of our partners is to pray for us, offer us insight and then, when our decision is made, to enter into prayer about their relationship with us.

But every once in a while, when we get one of these pre-emptive strikes from the Roman Catholic Church, some of us respond with regret; “We are now further away from full communion with the Roman Catholic Church”. For many, the goal of our dialogue with Roman Catholics is to enter into a fullness of unity which includes the Eucharist. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in Catholicism and Anglicanism, there are many doctrines we need to reconcile before that can happen. How do we do that when the Roman Catholic church denies the possibility of women presiding over the Eucharist? Do we then make women priests simply an addendum?

I can not not take that personally as an affront to the work that God is doing in and through me. Being a woman and being a priest are not separate beings. I realized this when I was first in discernment and I received an email from a dear friend who did not believe in the ordination of women. He wrote, “I do not doubt your call, but I can not find support for the ordination of women”. Until that moment, I didn’t think about how I would be a woman and a priest. I was just going to be a priest. But the logical disconnect of my friend’s words made me reconsider. I responded that he could not believe what he stated. He was either denying my womanhood or stating unequivocally that I was mistaken in my call because God simply does not call women to the ministry.


I am not going to use historic examples of discrimination to express the disconnect of full communion with a church that denies the ordination of women. Let me try a new one. Let’s take the Church of Cheetahs (CC), and the Church of Elephants and Cheetahs. These churches want to work more closely together. The CC invites the CEC into a deeper relationship that means working together in all things (full communion is a little more complicated than this but bear with me). But the CC does not believe the elephants can participate in church leadership.  Imagine a presentation of the CC/CEC delegation to the elephants.

Cheetah: We will be stronger together, and able to create a more co-operative system, in the unity that Christ wants for the church.

Elephant 1: Wonderful. But the CC doesn’t have elephants in its leadership. Will we be included in the leadership?

Cheetah: Oh yes.. You can remain in leadership in the CEC, and you can be part of committees. You can write letters and even submit your thoughts online. And you can pray for us.

Elephant 1: But the final decisions will be made by Cheetahs…

Cheetah: Well…yes…but we will need your input. And you can always influence the Cheetahs behind the scenes. Remember, those who are least are the greatest.

Elephant 2: Cheetahs from the CC will be able to lead us in worship. Will we be able to lead worship in the CC church?

Cheetah: The CCs believe that elephants can not be called by God to lead in worship because Jesus didn’t name elephants as his disciples, so you can continue to lead worship in the CEC but not in the CC.

Elephant 3: But…we are called by God to lead worship. The CEC has affirmed our call to lead worship. Is the CEC changing it’s decision about elephants leading worship?

Cheetah: Uh…no. Of course not.

Elephant 1: When we meet together, does that mean only cheetahs can lead worship because the CC won’t accept our leadership?

Cheetah: Well…yes…The CC accepts elephants, just not in leadership.

Elephant 3: But I am an elephant, and a leader. God created both in me. How do I accept one and deny the other?

Cheetah: …well…pray about it…

Elephant 2: And if the CEC agrees to this, you are asking us to choose between being elephants and being worship leaders. Except, for us, they are one and the same. That is unity.*chalice

God created me woman. God called me to be a priest. God’s call was affirmed by my local parish, two bishops, professors, supervisors, classmates, a panel of examiners, my national church, many churches around the world and continues to be affirmed by my parishioners and, yes, it is Biblical.

As a Christian for whom the Eucharist has a profound place in my life, I am moved by Stephen Colbert’s revelation about his part in the Eucharist. As a woman priest, I feel diminished. His revelation was not because of a woman priest, but because hearing a woman separated the words from the office of priest and he was able to internalize the consecration in a new way. So, while significant and beautiful, his revelation also diminishes my vocation, that I am the same as him. And I am not. I am not above, but I am set apart.

Why does this distinction matter? Because, in many parts of the world, women are excluded from ordained ministry. We are also excluded in the midst of a national (Anglican Church of Canada) and international church (Worldwide Anglican Communion) whose canon laws state that women are also called by God and yet tolerate those who do not believe this. In many places, I am expected to step aside from celebrating at the altar for the comfort of those who theologically disagree with my ordination. Point being, equality is not universal. It is only visible where it does not make people uncomfortable. We mustn’t assume there is equality when there is not.

We experience celebrity in a dichotomy. They are either completely awesome and always to be followed/retweeted/shared, or they are completely reprehensible and must never be uttered or shown or even considered for debate. Stephen Colbert is well loved, as is Pope Francis, and for good reason. They also believe in doctrines that, despite their affection and respect for women, keep women in a subservient relationship to men. And I don’t raise this because I want all feminists and those who love women to boycott Stephen Colbert or to reject Pope Francis. I raise it so we do not neglect the complexity and inequality that exists within our churches and in our relationship with other churches.

There is no need for us to sweep our disagreements under the rug in order to work towards unity. Our unity already exists in our faith in Christ. Colbert and Francis are no more or less my brothers than the men I lead, follow and work alongside. We are unique, and the Holy Spirit moves in and among us and expresses Herself in various ways to various peoples and places. Dialogue should enrich our faith by being exposed to more expressions of the Holy Spirit, not to limit the work of the Spirit to something that can be agreed to and published.

So I continue to serve in this complex institution. I stay not because we have it all figured out, but because none of us do, so I stay to work it out with my friends and sisters and brothers and, yes, even enemies. I’m glad Stephen Colbert is in the work with me.

*Please accept this ridiculous scenario as an oversimplification of ecumenical dialogue to make a point.


14 thoughts on “Stephen Colbert and why I am uncomfortable with full communion with the Roman Catholic Church

  1. Elizabeth P

    I think you heard Colbert wrong! I think he said “someone I don’t perceive of as a priest” – in that because he’s not accustomed to female priests. He actually explicitly refers to her as a female priest earlier. I see the rest of your points, but I really hope you’ll leave Colbert out of them. I don’t think he said what you think he said. I actually see his message as commenting on how inclusion of people who are not male can help all of us to receive the Eucharist with more impact and reality.

    1. Dawn

      I think both interpretations are possible, although from his remarks it is clear to me that women are included in the laity as one of those “who noone perceives as a priest” in which he includes himself.

      I hold no fault against Colbert, but simply caution those who would jump to the conclusion – as many have with Pope Francis – that he is in favour of something he never states he is. As I think my piece makes clear, Colbert’s remarks are not made in a vacuum, even if this is an interview on a Catholic network.

  2. Dan Tootle

    Dawn – I also viewed the interview and had the same reaction when he stated “…not perceived as a priest.” He definitely continues to work from his Catholic upbringing and continuing faith journey with its placement of women as subservient to men within Catholic religion leadership. Hooray for his moment of enlightenment, but he has a good distance yet to go for that momentary glimpse of how God’s kingdom is to become one of ongoing discernment.

  3. Marti C.

    Galatians 3:26-29: For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.

    For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

    There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

    And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

    ‘Nuff said?

  4. There are, in fact, two hurdles to the Cheetahs accepting the Elephants. None of the Cheetahs and Elephants in the CEC can lead worship with the CC’s, because sometime ago, the CC said that all the orders in the CEC are uttterly null and void. In their eyes, cheetahs who minister with elephants are not really cheetahs.

    In a peculiar flip to Colbert’s observations (and I think that Elizabeth’s observation above is correct), all Anglican/Episcopal clergy–male and female–are not “perceived as priests”–but women carry a double invalidity in the official eyes of the RCC.

  5. Theresa Johnson

    Well said! I so appreciate your comments, and felt similarly uncomfortable with and stung by Stephen Colbert’s inability to recognize the priesthood of an ordained woman as she celebrated the Eucharist.

  6. I was raised Roman and then later received into the Episcopal church and the slim number if Anglican churches in my area, not to mention the dead state of out diocese, means I am a practicing Roman and still hold onto my Episcopal membership. Years ago I felt the wonder Colbert felt, but I had the good sense to actually go up and receive communion. The workings of Christ are most strange, and God had a way of overriding the bigotries and prejudices we cling to in his name. There are a large number of ordained Catholic women sitting between a rock and a very hard place waiting to be acknowledged by Rome. There is, flatly, just a lot of brokenness in the body of Christ. As things stand today full communion between Rome and Canterbury is impossible, probably undesirable, but who knows what wonders God has in store for tomorrow?

  7. You…do realize that he would probably say the same thing concerning a man, right? I mean, the part about the person not being a priest, not the revelation. Roman Catholics don’t consider Anglican Orders to be valid, male or female.

    If I may be candid, it is incredibly frustrating, trying to dialogue with people who are for women in the priesthood. I am a member of the ACNA, and looking at the priesthood myself. Universally, women can become deacons in the ACNA. As well, women can be priests under some of the Bishops. I disagree with that latter position, and it seems like you would consider me some sexist and denier of equality for that.

    If I am correct, what you are saying is that my position (that women can literally be in ANY position on the planet outside of being a Father–physically and spiritually) is sexist. Is it sexist to believe that only a woman can be a mother?

    I don’t know your theological leanings concerning, say, gay marriage and transgender issues. If you hold to the idea that a person who is biologically a woman can only be a woman (the same for a man), no matter what they believe, then I have to ask if it is sexist to believe that only women can give life in birth.

    Is it sexist to believe that? Likewise, it is not sexist to believe that only men can consecrate the Eucharist. This is what Sacramental theology, and the History of the Church, teach us.

    Believe me when I tell you I don’t WANT to believe that only men can be priests/Bishops. I don’t hold this belief because I think it gets me popularity points with the ladies (for some it does, for some it doesn’t). I rejected Sacramental theology, too (I grew up Baptist); but I eventually had to hold to both Sacramental theology AND a male-only priesthood because the History of the Church is uniform on both.

    Call me sexist for this, and you are claiming one of two things: 1) you are claiming that the Holy Spirit cannot lead His Church on such an important question, 2) you are claiming that the Holy Spirit is sexist.

    1. Dawn

      James, forgive me for my late reply. As you may tell I left my blog responsibilities alone for a while and have just done a bit of work to revive it.

      I will not call you a sexist, and I am sorry you have found this discussion frustrating. I share that frustration on two fronts-disagreement and also having to justify my genuine calling by God at every turn. So forgive me if my frustration has caused you offence.

      You and I clearly discern the Holy Spirit in different ways and we are not alone in our positions. Both of our positions are supported by a larger Church of which we are members.

      I would challenge your point that the history of the church is uniform on male-only priesthood. If we look at the Epistles (which predate priesthood as we know it today) there are examples of women who Paul related to as leaders of the faith. We have woman saints in the earliest church when we do not know for sure if they presided over sacraments or not.

      So, again, I am not calling you a sexist, nor am I calling Colbert or Francis a sexist. I am pointing out a difference that many glossed over because of Colbert’s commitment to the social gospel. Colbert did not make a case for the ordination of women. In fact, he denied that woman’s priesthood (as someone above pointed out, he would have if it were a man as well). So those of us who believe in the ordination of women shouldn’t hold this up as an example.

      Thank you for your patience. I hope to post more about some work I am doing in the coming days.

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