Attorney General Merrick Garland (CNS photo/Win McNamee, Pool via Reuters)

It’s easy to make fun of the leaked FBI memo that proposed infiltrating radical-traditionalist Catholic organizations to gather intelligence on the violent extremists said to be drawn to them and, supposedly, their celebrations of the Tridentine Mass. As one op-ed writer scoffed in the Washington Post, “the most dangerous thing a Rad Trad might do is leave a rosary lying about for someone to slip on.”

It’s also easy to be outraged, especially if you misinterpret the FBI memo in the way twenty Republican attorneys general did in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland: “The memorandum’s targeting of Catholics because they prefer to pray in the ancient liturgical language of the Church, and the tactics it proposes for dealing with those Catholics, harkens back to some of the worst chapters of our past.”

Those who’ve been quick to call the FBI anti-Catholic should recognize that far-right Catholic websites do publish a great deal of material that would draw and affirm racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists, especially anti-Semites. Catholic leaders and spokespersons should condemn that more forcefully.

And the FBI, which, by the way, has always had a large number of Catholic employees, should rethink the big-net intelligence-gathering practices adopted in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attack. Perhaps the problems inherent in the feds’ anti-terrorism surveillance will be clearer to some people when the targets are white Catholics rather than Muslims.

Kyle Seraphin, a former FBI agent, published the memo on his website on February 8. Large sections are redacted for unexplained reasons, so it’s not possible to judge if the FBI has any specific evidence to back up the memo’s assertions. We are left with the memo’s statement that the assessment is “based on FBI investigations, local law enforcement agency reporting, and liaison reporting.” It includes an appendix that lists Catholic radical-traditionalist organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified as “hate groups,” which, if the memo is accurate, is not the basis for its conclusions (contrary to many accounts of the controversy).

In an interview with the far-right website LifesiteNews, Seraphin called the FBI’s intelligence unit “very woke” and said it was a “bizarre” notion that there are Catholic white supremacists or anti-Semites. “I’ve never experienced anti-semitism in the Catholic Church,” he said. “Maybe it exists, but I haven’t seen it.”

And yet, many of the organizations referred to in the memo Seraphin disclosed carry anti-Semitic statements on their websites. A self-described Christian group called Legio Christi (which is not the Catholic religious order Legionaries of Christ, the memo notes) urges: “So if you are a Christian, it is your duty, as all the Church Fathers and many more writers have done through the ages, to condemn the jews as a perverse, satanic group, because that is what ‘jew’ has meant for 2000 years and counting.” The group’s reading list includes a link to a PDF copy of a 1938 authorized biography of Adolf Hitler, Germany’s Hitler. (“The future belongs to National Socialism since, like Christianity itself, it is founded on love.”)   

Those who’ve been quick to call the FBI anti-Catholic should recognize that far-right Catholic websites do publish a great deal of material that would draw and affirm racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists.

To this, add that Legio Christi winks at violence. Its “standing orders” include a section on “Violence and the Legionary” that urges members to prepare for conflict by training in firearms or hand-to-hand fighting. “There are those who seek to harm us either through subterfuge, violence, seeking to mislead our descendants, or through persecution of some manner,” it says. “We consider these people to be our enemies on earth and we seek their conversion most earnestly but...where they do not relent and force us to take up arms, there we must meet them in appropriate measure.”

As reported earlier, one of the organizations referred to in the memo, the traditionalist-Catholic breakaway Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of St. Benedict Center in Richmond, New Hampshire, has helped revive the anti-Semitic writings of Father Denis Fahey, an Irish theologian who inspired Father Charles Coughlin’s anti-Semitic radio diatribes in the late 1930s. We hear their echo in the writings of E. Michael Jones, whose magazine Culture Wars and publisher Fidelity Press, based in South Bend, Indiana, were referred to in the FBI’s memo.

“In spite of 40 years of Jewish exaggeration and chutzpah certain facts remain,” Jones wrote in his Fidelity Press book The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit and Its Impact on World History (which is also on Legio Christi’s reading list). “The Church is not and cannot possibly be anti-Semitic because the term refers primarily to race and racial hatred. The Church cannot promote racial hatred of any group, certainly not of the Jews because its founder was a member of that racial group.”

It wasn’t unreasonable for an FBI intelligence analyst to suppose that such ideas would be attractive to violently biased people. Nor did the FBI memo target anyone simply because they attend Masses celebrated in Latin, as the Republican attorneys general claimed. The memo drew a distinction: “Radical-traditionalist Catholics compose a small minority of overall Roman Catholic adherents and are separate and distinct from ‘traditionalist Catholics’ who prefer the Traditional Latin Mass and pre–Vatican II teachings and traditions, but without the more extremist ideological beliefs and violent rhetoric.”

Nonetheless, the memo’s proposal to gather intelligence on violent extremists by infiltrating churches is a sign that the FBI hasn’t absorbed the lessons of past controversies over its broad surveillance of mosques.

“We’ve seen many products over the years as bad as this,” said Michael German, a former FBI agent and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The only difference is that the FBI seems willing to withdraw it much quicker than it ordinarily does.” In this case, the leak quickly led officials at FBI headquarters to announce that they would withdraw the memo from internal communication systems.

The memo’s proposal to gather intelligence on violent extremists by infiltrating churches is a sign that the FBI hasn’t absorbed the lessons of past controversies over its broad surveillance of mosques.

German, author of Disrupt, Discredit, and Divide: How the New FBI Damages Democracy, recalled the FBI’s much slower decision more than a decade ago to purge hundreds of pages of counterterrorism training documents after news reports showed that the material included false and stereotypical claims about Islam and American Muslims.

German has written that rather than track so-called “hate groups” and their ideologies, the FBI would be more effective if it started with known criminal activity as the basis for gathering intelligence. “Many individuals involved with white supremacists and other far-right groups routinely engage in violence and other criminal activities not intended to further the activities of the group,” said German, basing that on his own experience as an undercover agent. Many more individuals are known to have participated in violence through such incidents as the violent white nationalist rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the January 6 riot at the Capitol.

But the FBI’s inclination to infiltrate radical groups based on their ideology, rhetoric, or religious practice seems to be embedded in the agency’s DNA. The FBI’s intrusion on southern California mosques, still the subject of a 2011 lawsuit, is a case study. An informant, Craig Monteilh, has admitted that at the instigation of his FBI handlers, he pretended to convert to Islam. He publicly declared his intention at a ceremony at the Islamic Center of Irvine, and went on to make secret recordings and daily reports from ten houses of worship. He gave the FBI the phone numbers, email addresses, and other background information of Muslims he met; made hundreds of hours of video recording inside mosques and the homes and businesses of southern California Muslims; and recorded audio of thousands more conversations, including public discussion groups and classes on Islam. As the informant recounted, the FBI agents looked at Muslim religiosity—reciting the Quran in school, for example—as an indicator of terrorist leanings. This, it can be added, was consistent with the training sessions the FBI pulled.

As often occurs in FBI probes, the next step could be for an informant to encourage people who engage in incendiary rhetoric to plan violent crimes. That is, a government informant creates a crime and induces his targets to join in. One study found that just 5 percent of some 317 post-9/11 jihadi prosecutions involving use of an informant had thwarted a genuine threat of terrorism.

Federal terrorism investigators face a difficult task, since a misjudgment on their part could have fatal consequences. A review of how the FBI does its job needs to be fair-minded, not based on partisan feelings about who the agency is investigating. Meanwhile, Catholic leaders can help by making much more clear than they have to date that the reprehensible views spread by many far-right “Catholic” outlets—often mixed in with more traditional Catholic piety—are hardly Catholic.

Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.

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