The All-Spin Zone? Catholicism According to Bill O'Reilly

Love him or hate him, it's hard not to admire the scrappy charisma of Bill O'Reilly.

The Fox News Channel superstar handily leads the pack of American news commentators. His steady rise from working-class Levittown, N.Y., to hosting both a nationally syndicated radio show ("The Radio Factor” on Westwood One) and “The O'Reilly Factor” on Fox News Channel as well as writing best-selling books epitomizes the American dream. You have to marvel at the man's interviewing prowess, the sheer ease with which he jolts his subjects off rehearsed talking points and the way he somehow comes across as avuncular and pugilistic at once.

Conservatives rightly see an ally in O'Reilly, who peppers his commentary with jabs at gangsta rap, ACLU secularism, activist judges, Jesse Jackson's iffy tax status and other peeves. He says he's an “independent,” which is smart marketing, since it gives license to gore the oxes of both right and left. He's “looking out for the folks,” a Ralph Nader sans the green politics and the rumpled suit, combing the landscape for cultural Corvairs. Regardless of your opinion of his opinions, give the man credit for the sheer pace of preparing for three hours of radio and an hour of television per day, five days a week.

But there is one noticeable misstep in the swagger. A major, ungainly misstep. And he doesn't even know about it.

Though taught by dedicated nuns in a robust blue-collar Catholic upbringing and a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, he has an unusually poor grasp of his religion. While it would be wrong to attack sincerely held beliefs, the fact is many basic teachings of his Church are lost to him. Not just this or that part. He seems spectacularly unaware of the whole: the Church's self-understanding as the repository of Christian faith, her teachings on sexuality and the sacredness of human life, even the basic duties of a practicing member of the Catholic Church.

Space forbids a complete list of examples, but for starters O'Reilly believes that for him (the “for him” being key to his subjectivist viewpoint) being a Catholic is purely a matter between Bill and God. No need for any binding earthly authority, no necessary mediating community and certainly no filial regard for the bishops. Not to be unecumenical, but this is essentially mainline Protestantism. In his first book, The O'Reilly Factor, he says flatly, “My religion is Roman Catholicism. I go to church, but I'm an independent thinker” (p. 183). This is code for, “I disagree with a ton of Church teaching, but it's okay because it's really just the Church of Me.”

The wintry climb to the Church of Bill required the use of philosophical ice picks. “And if there is a God at the end of it all,” he asks in a stab at theodicy as touching as it is adolescent, “What does it matter? You're in the ground or scattered to the winds. If the deity is a fraud, you won't possibly care” (p. 168). His odd preference for the word deity is telling. It is not a part of the linguistic patrimony of Catholic theology as a God reference, belonging more in an encyclopedia than a prayer book. It may even reflect some dim uncomfort-ableness with the whole organized religion thing. Indeed, he says, “Religion is primarily a way to examine my conscience and spend some time thinking about things more important than my own conscience” (p. 187). The identity of the “something more important” he keeps from us.

Yet despite the theological miss-hits, it is not quite accurate to lump O'Reilly in with other public figures who pledge allegiance to an unspecified Catholic “identity/heritage/tradition,” a la the Kennedy, Schwarzenegger, Kerry, Sheen, Madonna and Daschle set. Rather, one gets the sense that he perhaps wants to be closer to the bosom of the Church. He says he goes to Sunday Mass “when he can” and fondly remembers the wrist-rapping nuns of his boyhood classrooms. Which is something.

But an identity crisis is an identity crisis. And symptomatic of this one is his schizoid confusion over abortion. When it comes to abortion, the No Spin enforcer spins like a whirling dervish. It is fascinating to watch. He bullies pro-abortion guests, cataloguing the horrible aftereffects of abortion in the lives of the women the procedure is alleged to help. He is appalled by partial-birth abortion and was pleased President Bush signed the partial-birth abortion ban. He mocks the National Organization for Women and other pro-—g t o abortion groups that protest the charge of depth double homicide in the famous Laci Peterson murder case because her slain son, Conner, had yet to be born alive.

Take another example — the Elizabeth Ehlert murder trial. The Illinois woman was twice found guilty of drowning her baby girl in a garbage bag. The body was found four days later. A doctor testified that there was air in the baby's lungs at the time of death. Ehlert's boyfriend testified that he heard the baby cry. You can guess the rest: A three-judge panel ruled that the umbilical cord might not have been severed at the time of death, based on a criterion dredged up from an 1820 law. To these learned justices, a crying baby is not necessarily alive. So Elizabeth Ehlert was acquitted. The case might go to the Illinois Supreme Court.

Understandably, O'Reilly was incensed. “Come on,” he protested. “This has nothing to do with being pro-choice. America simply cannot be a country where a woman is allowed to execute a baby, tethered or not. This is a major human-rights violation. It's barbaric ... The brutal killing of a defenseless baby should sicken all people of conscience, yet the legal system may exonerate the killer and the media stands mute.”

Execute. Major human-rights violation. Barbaric. Brutal killing. Defenseless baby. Killer. Mute media. How eagerly O'Reilly applies these adjectives to the type of infant killings that boyfriends can hear. But, ah, that bright and sacrosanct line between infanticide and abortion: Bill O'Reilly is a dutiful supporter of Roe v. Wade.

Just how strong a supporter is another question. The Fox News star said he was “stunned” to learn that an exit poll taken in California on Oct. 7 found 30% polled believed it was okay to kill a baby at any time before birth. “What can these people be thinking?” he thundered. “How could any feeling human being come to that conclusion? Have they ever seen a sonogram?” Yet he seems blissfully unaware of the implications of his outrage, unable to connect the dots.

But he might not be a true Roe v. Wade believer. You can pick up the way abstract illogic trickles down into concrete body language. There is an unease in his treatment of it. Fifty percent of his passion is spent on loathing how abortion scars women; the other 50 is left to prop up the “right-to-choose” rhetoric. It's hard to tell where his real center of gravity lies: Is he a pro-choicer who's embarrassed by the extremes of his fellow travelers or a diffident pro-lifer who recoils from where he knows his principles will lead him?

It's as though he's having an ideological affair with Roe, has a hunch it's wrong but doesn't know how to break it off. Were he to become consistently pro-life, he might jeopardize his “independent thinker” status, so essential to his image as an agent provocateur. Perhaps it's simply about the bottom line: The coffee mugs, books and doormats that bear his name do not make Bill O'Reilly less rich. Or perhaps it's the long shadow of the Fox brass. Indeed, former Fox newsman Matt Drudge quit/was fired from Fox News over his intention to use in order to illustrate the human face of abortion the now-famous photo of a fetus grasping the finger of his surgeon.

The closest O'Reilly comes to affirming the sanctity of unborn life is in his pet term, “potential human being,” a slogan drawn from the language of Roe v. Wade. No guest has told him he has it exactly backward: A fetus (or embryo, or zygote, or blastocyst, depending on nearness to conception) is not a potential human being but a human being with potential. Biologically, the actuality begins at conception. Blessed Mother Teresa cut through the inane idea that abortion is somehow a “complex issue” when she said, “If abortion is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

It would show consistency and courage if O'Reilly allowed an actual abortionist to explain in detail, with slides and video footage, exactly how the various abortion procedures (D&E, saline, RU-486 and partial-birth abortion) accomplish their tasks. Now that would be No Spin. But, like most Roe v. Wade fans, O'Reilly doesn't want to know. Such a show ‘n’ tell might make drowning in a garbage bag seem relatively humane.

Then there is Pope John Paul II, whom O'Reilly has denounced repeatedly as complicit in the American priestly scandal and who earns his special wrath. Papal coverage invariably comes with a note of irritated condescension. To him, the Holy Father is a sad, dithering letdown. He agrees with the Pope on the death penalty, albeit for a different reason: He thinks the criminal will suffer more by harsh prison conditions than by lethal injection.

Finally, as regular viewers know, O'Reilly is always up for bishop bash, a set of gripes not unconnected to their moral credibility as teachers. The game goes like this: Call the bishops craven, criticize them, then find vindication in their silence. From one angle, at least, he has a point. While there are many forest fires in chanceries these days, Catholics who were adults during Vatican II will tell you that the sounds of episcopal silence would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago. If radio and TV pioneer Edward R. Morrow was a Catholic and began distorting or disparaging Catholic teaching a la O'Reilly to his legion of listeners, chances are slim that a Cardinal Spellman, Cardinal Cushing or an Archbishop Sheen would say nothing. Forget the bishops — lay Catholics from Jersey to Juneau would be in an uproar.

But times, and “ministry styles,” have changed. A modest start might be for someone to hand O'Reilly a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where he would discover that the Church, being an organization founded strictly for sinners, requires neither sanctity nor perfection for membership. But there is some indispensable minimum standard, which is obedience to the Church's moral and spiritual teachings, at least in principle if not always in practice.

To his credit, O'Reilly has built his show into a powerful bully pulpit, and he uses it to shame his enemies and praise his allies. This news-as-moral-bullhorn idea reflects a social conscience that is surely not unrelated to a Catholic upbringing, and it even embodies what the fathers of Vatican II had in mind for the right use of media in the decree Inter Mirifica.

The problem is, the pick ‘n’ choose “cafeteria Catholicism” of the Church of Bill is not to be mistaken for the Body of Christ. One can only imagine how much sharper his rhetorical blades would become if he could “come and see” this (John 1:39). The barbarism of a newborn baby being drowned in a creek has nothing do with being pro-choice?

To employ an O'Reillyism, that's the most ridiculous item of the day.

Patrick Coffin writes from Los Angeles.