An American flag flies outside the Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Washington (OSV News photo/Yuri Gripas, Reuters)

When investigators in Henrico County, Virginia searched twenty-three-year-old Xavier Lopez’s bedroom, they photographed a large Nazi flag hanging vertically on the wall, with a crucifix and rosary fastened above the swastika. But that wasn’t what prompted police and federal agents to arrest Lopez in the case that led to what’s been dubbed the FBI’s “anti-Catholic memo.”

Rather, the issue was the weapons Lopez had accumulated in violation of federal law. His cache included eight homemade firebombs: bottles that mixed gasoline with polystyrene, a foam that could create a napalm-like flaming jelly that adheres to whatever it strikes, an FBI agent testified. There were also cloth wicks and all-weather matches designed to light up like a Fourth of July sparkler even in high winds. Also recovered: twenty-five rounds of 9-mm ammunition, which prosecutors said matched the caliber of a handgun kit he’d bought. He had a 3D printer, which investigators said was intended for making gun parts.

After Lopez’s arrest on November 13, 2022, FBI agents in nearby Richmond delved further into his contacts, including at a church where the Tridentine Mass is celebrated. The ensuing investigation and a leaked but heavily redacted FBI intelligence memo ignited charges that the FBI was “targeting” Catholics based on traditionalist religious belief.

After much outcry that the FBI was investigating those Catholics who prefer to worship in Latin,  an investigation by Department of Justice inspector general Michael Horowitz completed in April found that there was no evidence that the Richmond FBI agents looked any further into Lopez’s church than necessary “to determine whether he was planning or inciting violence.”

Nonetheless, the controversy over the “anti-Catholic memo” shows that it’s time to review how the FBI gathers intelligence on any religious or political group that “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” (RMVE in FBI parlance) may be exploiting for illegal purposes. The problem is that the FBI’s practice of probing the “radicalization process” can lead into religious or political activity that is protected under the First Amendment.

The agency returned to these practices after the 9/11 terrorist attack, according to Michael German, a former undercover FBI agent who’d once probed white supremacists and is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. German said it’s “comforting” to know that the agents who investigated Lopez had cause to do so. But, he added, the practice of gathering intelligence based on ideology is ineffective and unfair. He’s written that “modern radicalization theory is used to justify targeting American Muslim communities with oppressive surveillance, infiltration with informants, guilt-by-association smears, and selective prosecution, based not on evidence of wrongdoing but on their religious and political activities.”

The FBI’s own internal investigation of the “anti-Catholic” memo faulted the Richmond-based agents for not adhering to FBI standards. But the real fault may be with ambiguous federal guidelines, rather than with what the agents did.   

That leaves a vital role for congressional oversight. But, as tends to happen with House Republican investigations, the House Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government started its probe with the conclusion first before finding out the facts, prioritizing political talking points over constitutional principles.


The starting point for understanding the “anti-Catholic” memo is the overlooked criminal case that initiated it, explaining why FBI agents found it necessary to place an informant within a Richmond church, and why analysts wrote an internal memo on larger concerns the investigation raised. Documents that prosecutors filed in the case U.S. v. Xavier Lopez at U.S. District Court in Richmond tell the story of a young, unemployed, and possibly mentally unstable man who, released from prison, began amassing deadly weapons, spreading neo-Nazi ideology, and issuing specific instructions as he advocated violence, especially against Jews.

The real fault may be with ambiguous federal guidelines, rather than with what the agents did.

As portrayed in these documents, the FBI agents had reasonable grounds to fear that their investigative target would act on the detailed, highly antisemitic threats he was spreading on social media, and also that he was trying to recruit helpers at the Catholic church he’d begun attending. Critics of the FBI—right-wing media such as Fox News and EWTN, House Republicans, conservative advocacy organizations like Catholic Vote—have missed this context in their rush to portray Catholics, an important voting bloc, as victims of government overreach.

Among other evidence, the Lopez file reveals a chilling letter that authorities said he wrote to his aunt. It’s postmarked May 28, 2021, sent from Henrico County Jail, where Lopez was close to completing a one-year sentence for felony vandalism. Although a felon barred by law from possessing firearms, he was aggrieved that his aunt, whom he’d lived with, would not let him acquire new weapons. She’d already turned over to police his AR-15 rifle, a thousand rounds of ammunition, multiple gun magazines for feeding the ammunition, and enough components and kits for an FBI agent to later assert that Lopez had created a functioning firearms manufacturing setup, according to court records.

“All that needs to be done is for us to truly unite in Christ Jesus and make total war against the Satanic occultist government and the Zionist devil worshiping bankers who control it, and the Lord God will give us victory,” he wrote to his aunt, adding: “Jews, liberals, communists, degenerates, Zionists, progressives, capitalists, globalists, and Green Party PETA-type environmentalists are the greatest enemies of God and the primary representatives of the devil himself in the spotlight and everyday life. Learn to spot them and how to destroy them.”

The letter spells out his own twisted theology, using nine biblical passages to build a case for violence: “We are too pacifist, squeamish and ultimately cowardly to follow the Lord’s command to remove the synagogue of Satan and this Zionist Occupation Government since doing so would require killing them.” The letter adds: “It must be said that unless I am able to build guns, explosives & other forms of weaponry & store them in my room without fear of the law finding out it about it from you, I cannot fully trust in anything you say or do.” It’s signed with his name and “21st century crusader.”

After his release from the jail, Lopez moved back in with his aunt; police and the FBI soon tracked Lopez as allegedly he began seeking new weapons. An FBI agent testified that Lopez’s aunt drove him sixty miles to Charlottesville, where he looked at firearms in two stores and inquired about building a rifle.

On Gab, a social media platform attractive to Christian nationalists, Lopez used the account name Cru54d3r to dribble out his white-supremacist message, authorities said. A September 1, 2022, post welcomed “Fascist whites” as immigrants, and urged them to “arm yourself to the teeth” and beat up Blacks and Jews. It added: “Have no tolerance for cops. if they come to your house, that’s your cue to shoot them…have absolutely zero regard for the ‘law and order’ of the kike system that hates you.”

Investigators needed to learn whom their suspect was communicating with in these messages. A post in early October 2022 described “how to have a proper organization” without attracting law-enforcement attention: “All real weapons should be built, not bought. this can be done with a 3D printer and a parts kit.” It gave specific instructions on the kinds of firearms, ammunition and gun magazines to use, to be handled “with gloves on,” as well as hydration packs, tents, sleeping bags. Also: “Being a convicted felon is not a valid excuse for remaining unarmed.”

Federal prosecutors presented this evidence to a magistrate who ordered Lopez detained without bail, based on “clear and convincing evidence” that he was a danger to the community. The magistrate said factors included apparent mental-health problems, prior arrests, evidence of a previous assault on police, paramilitary activity, and “expression of extremist ideologies including white supremacy.”

By the time the inspector general issued his April 18 report, Lopez had pleaded guilty to possession of a destructive device, punishable by up to ten years in prison. (He is awaiting sentencing; his lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

As portrayed in these documents, the FBI agents had reasonable grounds to fear that their investigative target would act on the detailed, highly antisemitic threats he was spreading on social media.

The IG report says that the FBI had been monitoring “Defendant A”—the details of the case match up with Lopez’s—since 2019, including posts that advocated murdering police officers and “conducting a mass shooting at a school for special needs children,” and manufacturing bombs and 3D-printed weapons.

Early in 2022, the report says, he began attending a church that “associated with an international religious society that advocates traditional Catholic theology and liturgy but is not considered by the Vatican to be in full communion with the Catholic Church.” The “religious society,” identified as “Organization 1,” is clearly the Society of St. Pius X, or SSPX. The local church is identified only as “Church 1.” Our Lady of Fatima Chapel in Richmond, which is affiliated with SSPX, declined to comment and referred me to James Vogel, U.S. spokesman for SSPX. He didn’t return an email and phone messages.

Lopez liked that his new church “was a traditional church that isn’t totally kiked,” as the report said he put it in a social-media post. SSPX has so often been linked to antisemitism that it maintains a web page for the news media stating, “Anti-Semitism is not Catholic.” That is, SSPX says its dispute is with Jewish beliefs, not Jews.

The IG report indicates that Lopez was apparently disappointed that his neo-Nazi views were not endorsed at the parish, where, according to the FBI memo, he was taking a catechetical class to prepare for baptism. The report said he posted on social media that he “had to deal with the priest and some (thankfully not all) the parishioners talking about how ‘Hitler bad’ though thankfully they do acknowledge that the allies were evil.”

The inspector general reports that, based on Lopez’s online communications, FBI agents determined that he “was attempting to actively recruit other individuals with similar belief systems into Organization 1 and had begun talking about an attack.”

The social-media posts became more overt, the report says, explaining that “Defendant A’s advocacy of violence included communications with two individuals who attended Church 1 in which he made antisemitic comments, discussed the purchase of a pressure cooker, and used other terminology consistent with building a pressure cooker bomb.”

At that point, the FBI agents in Richmond, concerned that their suspect was trying to recruit help for an attack, decided that they needed to put an informant inside the church to interact with him. The IG report said the Richmond office did in fact notify the FBI’s Sensitive Operations Review Committee in May 2022 because of First Amendment implications. The informant was instructed to report only information about the suspect, not about the church generally or about other parishioners, the case agent told the inspector general.

Further, the FBI rated its suspect under its Indicators of Mobilization to Violence, used to determine investigative priorities in terrorism probes. In a footnote, the IG’s report notes “Defendant A” was ranked the No. 4 overall threat in the country, adding that the FBI’s fifth-ranked subject was convicted in the May 14, 2022 shooting in Buffalo in which a white supremacist murdered ten Black people.

According to the IG report, “Defendant A” took further steps that sounded alarms for the FBI agents: He bought equipment that could be used to chain shut the doors on commercial buildings, “similar to what the Virginia Tech shooter did to prevent victims from escaping,” referring to the murder of thirty-two people in 2007.

The night before Lopez’s arrest, he bought a truck, “which he said in a video posted on his social media account would be the final step in his plan for an attack,” the inspector general’s report says.

After the arrest on November 13, 2022, the FBI case agent interviewed the priest, the choir director, and others at the church. I couldn’t get their perspective on the interview but, according to the inspector general’s report, the agent found that “everyone knew that he was calling about Defendant A because of Defendant A’s ‘unusual’ and ‘concerning’ behavior and openly racist views.”

By that time, the IG report says, FBI intelligence analysts in Richmond had already begun working on what became the leaked memo, which was dated January 23, 2023.

A key part of this saga is that when the “internal use only” memo became public on February 8, 2023, the information about Lopez’s case was either blacked out or covered over with another sheet of paper. Also blacked out was that the Portland, Oregon FBI office had investigated possible weapons violations by another white supremacist who had “gravitated to the SSPX.” It said that Robert Reynolds, who was deceased by the time the memo was written, had posted pictures of himself inside a church with the caption, “The holy sacrifice of the mass. Join the Catholic Taliban.” Likewise, the redacted memo eliminated a paragraph on a southern California extremist who attended an SSPX-affiliated church and was a member of the antisemitic group Legio Christi.

The fuller version of the memo that the FBI later provided to Congress would have shown that agency was not “targeting” SSPX churches; it was trying to enlist their help to deal with a dangerous situation.

The fuller version of the memo that the FBI later provided to Congress would have shown that agency was not “targeting” SSPX churches; it was trying to enlist their help to deal with a dangerous situation.


Still, it’s jarring to see a government document that defines religious belief based on ideology. It defines “radical traditional Catholics” as Catholics who reject the Second Vatican Council, Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis, and who frequently adhere to “anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and white supremacist ideology.” This group, the memo makes clear, is small and “separate and distinct from ‘traditionalist Catholics,’” who prefer the Tridentine Mass and pre-Vatican II teachings, “but without the more extremist ideological beliefs and violent rhetoric.”

It's a clumsy way for law enforcement to approach a problem, since the legal issue isn’t “radical traditionalist Catholic” theology but whether some individuals are planning violence. But as the Lopez case indicates, there are dangers that need to be taken seriously, especially the evidence developed in the memo and in court that a small number of violence-prone extremists were trying to misuse faith communities to find co-conspirators.

The FBI memo, hastily withdrawn after the leak last year, had suggested that prominent traditionalist Catholics could help alleviate these dangers by publicly distancing themselves from “RMVE ideologies.” Instead, the reaction to the memo has mostly been defensiveness, denial of the danger, and deepened resentment.

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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