House Republicans Probe into FBI Effort to Recruit Informants in Catholic Churches
On Monday, Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) issued a subpoena to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to demand information about the Richmond FBI field office’s reconnaissance efforts targeting Catholic churches. The letter, addressed to FBI Director Christopher Wray, was aimed at providing congressional oversight to the FBI’s investigation into “Catholic Americans and its affect on protected First Amendment activity.”
The letter stated, “Based on the limited information produced by the FBI to the Committee, we now know that the FBI relied on at least one undercover agent to produce its analysis, and that the FBI proposed that its agents engage in outreach to Catholic parishes to development sources among the clergy and church leadership to inform on Americans practicing their faith.”
In February, an FBI whistleblower leaked a report from the FBI’s Richmond field office that was distributed in January. The report was titled, “Interest of Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists in Radical-Traditionalist Catholic Ideology Almost Certainly Presents New Mitigation Opportunities.” The report classified “radical-traditionalist Catholics” (RTC) as rejecting Vatican II (and thereby embracing the Latin Mass), disliking modern popes, and their adoption of “anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and white supremacist ideology.”
Stunningly, the leaked FBI Richmond report stated that Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists (RMVE) are interested in “radical-traditionalist Catholicism,” foreseeing an increase in the threat over the next 12-24 months leading up to the presidential election. House Republicans are now digging into this issue as a part of the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of Federal Government, which was created in January to understand how various agencies and entities of the U.S. government may have been “weaponized” against the American people to serve a progressive agenda.
The FBI report cites a Southern Poverty Law Center list of so-called “radical traditionalist” Catholic groups. This alone is problematic. The Southern Poverty Law Center has long been controversial and does not deserve to be quoted as a credible source by any government agency. Internal FBI intelligence products should have more trustworthy sources for their analysis.
The explanations offered by those in authority have not held up to public scrutiny. Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland squirmed under questioning from Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) about the Richmond field office’s proposal to set up tripwires and recruit sources to monitor Catholic churches. Garland responded, “It’s appalling. ... I understand that the FBI has withdrawn it, and it’s now looking into how this could ever have happened.”
Now, it appears Garland’s response may have been intentionally misleading. Hawley sent a letter to Garland this week, saying, “Let’s be clear: your Department has decided to turn Catholic congregations into front organizations for the FBI, and when asked about it, you’ve decided to fudge the truth before Congress. This is an unconscionable assault on American Catholics’ First Amendment rights and an abdication of your duty to enforce the law without fear or favor.”
There is clearly more to the story here, and Jordan’s efforts to uncover the truth are critical. The FBI has no business setting tripwires in Catholic churches, cultivating sources in Catholic churches, or sending undercover FBI agents to monitor Catholic churches as they exercise their most basic First Amendment right to worship.
Furthermore, it is ludicrous for the FBI to imply that Catholics who prefer the Latin Mass or hold more traditional views (including pro-life convictions and support for natural marriage) pose a domestic terror threat. With everything going on — from human trafficking, to increasing violence against churches, to Chinese police stations being established in the U.S. — is it really “radical” traditional Catholics who warrant a second glace from the FBI?
Western culture has become dominated by the sexual revolution and its consequences: the pervasive use of contraception and abortion, a rejection of natural marriage, and even a denial of the biological reality of women and men. In this environment, prioritizing marriage and family and living according to one’s sincerely-held religious beliefs is indeed radical. But embracing these counter-cultural trends clearly poses no threat to national security.
Mary Szoch, Family Research Council’s director of the Center for Human Dignity, told the Washington Stand, “Instead of spending its time finding the criminals who perpetrated the numerous attacks on Catholic churches over the last few years … the FBI has spent their time trying to find evidence of ‘racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists’ in ‘radical-traditionalist Catholic’ parishes.”
“As a Catholic, I’d like to welcome any member of the FBI to come and check out the Catholic church — you’ll find our ‘radical’ activities include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing shelter to the homeless, and loving our enemies,” Szoch said. “You’ll learn that instead of encountering racially motivated violence, minorities — both Catholic and non-Catholic — who attend Catholic schools increase their likelihood of graduation from 62% to 88% — and are more than twice as likely to graduate from college. At our hospitals, you won’t find violent extremists, but you will find that we treat one in seven patients in the United States.”
Far from being a haven for domestic terrorism, Catholic churches offer much to American society. The FBI Richmond report emphasized the need to “sensitize the congregation to the warning signs of radicalism.” This is simply slanderous. Statements like that foster a culture of hostility toward Christianity and an anti-Catholic sentiment that ought to be left in the dustbin of history.
Several years ago, I spent a summer as an intern at an FBI field office in the Midwest. I considered it a great honor at the time, and I still do. The FBI agents I worked with were deeply committed to their work and to keeping the American people safe. Agents who were considering opening new cases were diligent to assess the legality and rights of American citizens who might be affected. The FBI has a high calling, and that comes with immense responsibility. As the Richmond report went up the chain at the office, many had the opportunity to stop it, including the chief division counsel who approved it. It was a serious mistake that they neglected to do so.
By searching for domestic terrorists in Catholic churches, the FBI appears to be running roughshod over the very Constitution that it is their mission to uphold. This is beneath them. Officials at the Department of Justice and the FBI must take every feasible measure to ensure that no Americans are targeted for an investigation simply for practicing their First Amendment freedoms.
Arielle Del Turco is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council, and co-author of "Heroic Faith: Hope Amid Global Persecution."