By Kate Scanlon
WASHINGTON (OSV News) — The FBI is facing scrutiny after a leaked memo suggested some “radical traditionalist” Catholics pose threats of racial or ethnically motivated violence. The memo has since been retracted by the bureau, a spokesperson told OSV News.
In a leaked memo dated Jan. 23, an analyst at the FBI’s Richmond Division said “Radical Traditionalist Catholics” are “typically characterized by the rejection of the Second Vatican Council.” The memo said the ideology can amount to an “adherence to anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ and white supremacist ideology.” The memo also names far-right personality Nick Fuentes, who publicly self-identifies as Catholic and whom the memo says has ties to “white Christian nationalism.”
However, the memo distinguishes “radical traditionalist” Catholics as “separate and distinct” from “traditionalist Catholics,” Catholics who “simply prefer the Traditional Latin Mass and pre-Vatican II teachings.”
Nevertheless, the leaked FBI memo generated everything from unease over its contents to outrage from some quarters alleging the FBI was labeling all Catholics a threat.
Rick Garnett, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, told OSV News that although the FBI retracted the memo, “that it was ever composed is troubling.”
“While it probably does not violate America’s religious freedom laws for a law enforcement agency to discuss threats in particular communities, the memo echoes an ugly, and long-standing, tendency in the United States of seeing Catholics as somehow disloyal or particularly problematic,” Garnett said.
Robert A. Destro, a professor of law at The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, told OSV News the FBI’s memo overstepped the agency’s realm of authority.
If the FBI had evidence of criminal conduct from a member of one of the groups, Destro said, “then it seems to me they should do exactly what they would do in a criminal case, which is they would get a warrant to wiretap them, maybe search their house.”
Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond, Virginia, expressed alarm at the memo’s contents.
“People of all faith groups have long found refuge in the constitutional protections of our great nation,” Bishop Knestout said in a statement. “We all seek to share in God’s gift of life, enjoy the fruits of liberty that our nation offers and assist one another in ensuring the common good.”
Bishop Knestout noted in his statement that some of the groups named in the memo are not in full communion with the church, adding, “If evidence of extremism exists, it should be rooted out, but not at the expense of religious freedom.”
“A preference for traditional forms of worship and holding closely to the Church’s teachings on marriage, family, human sexuality, and the dignity of the human person does not equate with extremism,” he said.
Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares, alongside attorneys general from 19 other states, sent a letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland condemning the memo as “anti-Catholic.”
Miyares said in a statement that “Virginia is the birthplace of religious freedom and has a long history of protecting the inalienable right to live your faith free from government interference or intimidation.”
“The leaked memo from our state capital’s FBI office is unacceptable, unconstitutional, and un-American. Frankly, it’s what I would expect from Communist Cuba,” Miyares said. “As attorney general, I’m responsible for defending Virginians’ rights, and religious freedom is the bedrock of the constitutions of the United States and of Virginia. Virginians should not and will not be labeled ‘violent extremists’ by their government because of how they worship, or because of their beliefs.”
The same FBI memo noted that “conversely, deep-seated anti-Catholicism remains a characteristic of many far-right white nationalists.”
A cited source in the FBI memo is the the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an organization that monitors “hate groups” but has faced criticism from some who say the group too widely applies that label.
Cassie Miller, senior research analyst with center’s Intelligence Project, told OSV News in an email, “There is a stark difference between traditionalist Catholics — who celebrate the Latin Mass and rebuff many of the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council — and the radical traditionalist Catholics tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center.”
“The latter group is made up of a handful of organizations that not only reject many of the modern Catholic Church’s teachings and practices, but openly embrace antisemitism,” Miller said. “The radical traditionalist Catholics groups we identify as hate groups promote Holocaust denial and argue that the reforms of Vatican II were part of a sinister Jewish plot, in addition to other racist, bigoted, and conspiratorial beliefs. These are groups that teach hatred of people based on their religious beliefs, and for that reason we consider them hate groups.”
SPLC in 2021 identified nine organizations as “radical traditional Catholicism hate groups,” including the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary located in Richmond, New Hampshire, which is not canonically recognized by the Catholic Church.
On its website, SPLC says “(r)adical traditionalist” Catholics “subscribe to an ideology that is rejected by the Vatican and some 70 million mainstream American Catholics” and “may make up the largest single group of serious antisemites in America.”
A spokesperson for the FBI said in a statement provided to OSV News, “While our standard practice is to not comment on specific intelligence products, this particular field office product — disseminated only within the FBI — regarding racially or ethnically motivated violent extremism does not meet the exacting standards of the FBI.”
“Upon learning of the document, FBI Headquarters quickly began taking action to remove the document from FBI systems and conduct a review of the basis for the document,” the statement said. “The FBI is committed to sound analytic tradecraft and to investigating and preventing acts of violence and other crimes while upholding the constitutional rights of all Americans and will never conduct investigative activities or open an investigation based solely on First Amendment protected activity.”