Since 2010, FBI policy prevents its agents from spying on Americans in places of worship, which had been done in mosques after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
On Feb. 8, former FBI special agent turned federal whistleblower Kyle Seraphin published online a Jan. 23, 2023, internal memorandum by the FBI's Richmond Field Office in which it advocated spying on Catholics who attend the traditional Latin Mass. It did so under the slanderous assertion that such communities were infiltrated and prone to manipulation by proponents of "anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and white supremacist ideology."
Entitled, "Interest of Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists in Radical-Traditionalist Catholic Ideology Almost Certainly Presents New Mitigation Opportunities," and approved for release by the FBI Richmond Chief Division Counsel, the office's top lawyer, the eight-page memorandum advocates recruiting those who attend these Masses to serve as surreptitious spies or overt informants against their so-called "extremist" fellow Catholics. It also urges the Bureau to monitor traditional Latin Mass websites and online social media posts.
The memorandum distinguishes between those who simply love and attend the traditional Latin Mass from those it labels "Radical Traditionalist Catholics," who it declares are "typically characterized by the rejection of the Second Vatican Council" and advocate "more extremist ideological beliefs and violent rhetoric." It presents no evidence at all, however, of violent rhetoric, extremist beliefs, or hostile behavior. It specifies the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter as well as the schismatic Society of St. Pius X as points of outreach and infiltration.
As soon as the memorandum became public, the FBI disavowed it, saying that it "does not meet the exacting standards of the FBI" and averring that the bureau "will never conduct investigative activities or open an investigation based solely on First Amendment protected activity." It also stated it had retracted the memorandum and would investigate why it was issued.
Unsatisfied with what they considered mere damage control by the FBI, 20 Republican state attorneys general, led by Jason Miyares of Virginia, sent a letter on Feb. 10 to FBI Director Christopher Wray and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, demanding a stop to "anti-Catholic bigotry" and "treating Catholics as potential terrorists because of their beliefs." The Ags called for the FBI "produce publicly all materials" related to the origin of memorandum as well as to state "whether the FBI has begun infiltrating houses of worship in conflict with the FBI's internal guidelines." Since 2010, FBI policy prevents its agents from spying on Americans in places of worship, which had been done in mosques after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In a press conference, Miyares said that "spying on Catholics" is "an absurd use of federal law-enforcement and counterintelligence resources."
Richmond Bishop Barry Knestout on Feb. 13 said the leaked memo "should be troubling and offensive to all communities of faith as well as all Americans." He condemned its contents as a "threat to religious liberty" and called on legislators to "ensure that such offenses against the constitutionally protected free exercise of religion do not occur again." He insisted, "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," and affirmed that "racism, religious bigotry, violence, and discrimination have no place in our Church or teachings."
In an interview, Seraphin, the FBI whistle-blower, expressed concern that this memo was a "gateway" into what some believe is "fringe Catholicism" in order eventually to treat all Catholics as suspect and "declare them to be actual criminals in our country or potential terrorists." He highlighted the focus in the report on "hostility toward abortion rights advocates" as well as the attempt to link opposition to abortion or to the "LGBTQ" political agenda as tantamount to white supremacist racism and violent extremism.
That's part of what makes this document, he suggested, not just an attack on Latin Mass going Catholics but potentially on all who uphold Catholic moral teaching and all Christians who uphold Biblical morality. As a Feb. 15 Wall Street Journal editorial argued, the report suggests "that religiously inspired support of traditional marriage or pro-life views amounts to a rising domestic terror threat."
All of the critics of the report were united in condemning the "open" -- in contrast to clandestine -- sources on which the memorandum was based, especially a report produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which over the last several years has sought to brand groups that oppose abortion, the "LGBTQ" agenda, and those inclusion of biological males in female sports as "hate groups." The SPLC rejects "religious liberty" as a "guise" for anti-gay hatred and has sought to label "Radical Traditional Catholics" as "the largest group of serious anti-Semites in America" who condemned their "extremely conservative social ideals with respect to women."
Yet, despite the FBI's distancing itself from the SPLC over the last decade for its unsubstantiated, broad brush calumnies against those who oppose its agenda, the Jan. 23 memorandum reprinted in its entirely, without qualification, the SPLC's list of "Radical Traditional Catholicism Hate Groups."
The FBI intelligence report cited only three other sources, two related articles from the online magazine Salon that attempt to argue that Catholics and racists are trying to forge a political movement as well as an Atlantic article on the link between gun culture and the rosary, all of which were panned as ludicrous at their publication.
What are the lessons to be learned?
One is to be vigilant as to how certain anti-Catholic groups are trying to label the Church as a hateful and violent organization for its fidelity to Christ's teachings and are trying to influence government agencies to use their enormous powers to advance an agenda of marginalization of the Church or worse.
The second is to beware of the way the process normally begins, by slandering a "fringe" group that opponents think won't find much support -- in this case, "Radical Traditional Catholics" (RTCs) -- to establish precedents for expanding the surveillance. There was a concerted attempt to marginalize the "RTCs." The memo distinguishes between "good" and "bad" Catholics and then even between those who just love to attend the Latin Mass from the "RTCs," whom they try to malign as opposed to the pope, Vatican II, non-whites, women, gays and lesbians and all things wholesome. We need to be on guard against such demonization.
The third is to recognize the unintentional cooperation of some in the Church in this process of marginalization. Some Church leaders and faithful mistakenly equate love for the traditional Latin Mass as ipso facto opposition to Vatican II reforms and have recently attempted to marginalize them from parish bulletins and parish churches, as if they're somehow a nefarious lot, when they're actually as a group among the most faithful and resilient Catholics.
While there are certainly a few obnoxious "rad-trads" in local communities as well as on social media, their weapons remain just their hypercritical personal comments or caustic online screeds; even if irksome, they're not terrorists.
Hopefully this attack calumny against lovers of the traditional Latin Mass by the FBI will get those Catholics who oppose it and are trying to marginalize or eradicate it, to examine whether their lack of Christian love has amounted to a form of de facto hate speech that, as this episode manifests, can be exploited for ill.
- Father Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River who is national chaplain to Aid to the Church in Need USA, a Papal Missionary of Mercy and a Missionary of the Eucharist for the US Bishops.