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‘Weaponization’ — House Speaker on FBI and ‘traditionalist’ Catholics

One year after the publication of a controversial FBI memo on Catholicism, a group of Catholics was invited to celebrate a Mass according to the Extraordinary Form of the Liturgy, a “traditional Latin Mass” in the U.S. Capitol.

A temporary altar set up Jan. 23 in the U.S. Capitol, ahead of a Mass offered according to the 1962 Roman Missal. Credit: Ed Condon/Pillar Media.

The Mass was originally scheduled to take place in the Speaker of the House’s private dining room, but was moved to a larger venue shortly before it began at noon on Jan. 23 — and was standing room only as the Mass began.

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The Mass comes one year after Jan. 23, 2023, when the FBI field office in Richmond, Virginia, issued a memo titled “Interest of Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists in Radical-Traditionalist Catholic Ideology Almost Certainly Presents New Mitigation Opportunities.”

The memo, a redacted version of which was leaked to the press, outlined the rationale for increased law enforcement surveillance of so-called “traditionalist” Catholic communities which, it argued, would be increasingly of interest to extremists in the run up to the election in November this year.

Among the areas of radical-traditionalist “convergence” with the “far right white nationalist movement” which the FBI memo claimed to identify were “increased hostility to abortion-rights advocates on social media” as well as “anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and white supremacist ideology.”

At the same time, the memo appeared to note flaws in its own rationale, stating that “an overemphasis on white US nationalism may be off-putting to Radical-traditionalist Catholics of different ethnicities and countries of origin” and that “deep-seated anti-Catholicism remains a characteristic of many far-right white nationalists.”

Still, the memo argued for efforts to “mitigate” the “threat” posed by traditionalist Catholics by “leveraging existing sources,” develop new sources, and approach parish leaders to detect signs of radicalization among congregants.

After it leaked, the memo generated considerable backlash among Catholics and lawmakers alike and was withdrawn by the FBI.

The bishops of Virginia, Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond and Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, both spoke out against it, with Burbidge saying the memo “should be troubling and offensive to all communities of faith as well as to all Americans.”

“To be linked in any way because of the way you worship or live and practice your faith, and to be labeled as an extremist and a threat to society, it is … outrageous,” he said.

Bishop Knestout called the memo “alarming,” and called on “all national representatives from the Commonwealth of Virginia in the House and Senate to exercise their role of oversight, to publicly condemn this threat to religious liberty, and to ensure that such offenses against the constitutionally protected free exercise of religion do not occur again.”

Some lawmakers did just that.

The House Judiciary Committee and its Select Committee on the Weaponization of Government held hearings, and subpoenaed FBI Director Christopher Wray to explain how the memo came to be drafted, and to what extent it represented the FBI’s policy.

Among those taking a special interest in the memo was Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA 04) who served as a judicial committee member and chair of the weaponization of government committee until October last year, when he was elected Speaker of the House.

During Johnson’s time on the committees, they issued joint statements noting that the full, unredacted version of the memo appeared to show wider FBI involvement in the targeting of so-called “radical traditionalist Catholics” beyond the Richmond field office, and that this appeared to contradict Wray’s previous testimony to the committee.

Last month, the committees released a joint interim report titled “The FBI's Breach of Religious Freedom: The Weaponization of Law Enforcement Against Catholic Americans.” 

The report concluded that “While the FBI claims it ‘does not categorize investigations as domestic terrorism based on the religious beliefs—to include Catholicism—of the subject involved,’ an FBI-wide memorandum originating from the FBI's Richmond Field Office did just that.”

But one year after the Richmond memo was drafted, lawmakers are still voicing concerns that Catholic Americans could be targeted for their religious beliefs by federal law enforcement. 

Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Mike Johnson.

Ahead of the Jan. 23, 2024 Mass, Speaker of the House Mike Johnson — himself a practicing Southern Baptist — talked with The Pillar about the Richmond memo, and his ongoing concerns about the FBI’s approach to religious liberty.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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One year after from the Richmond FBI memo on ‘Radical Traditionalist Catholics,’ has the FBI satisfactorily explained how the memo came to be written in the first place?

I've not been satisfied. 

Of course, they have suggested that this was an isolated event, that it was only initially they said it was limited only to the Richmond field office and their area of responsibility, but we know that at least two other offices were involved at some level. 

The Judiciary Committee, which was my former committee before I became Speaker, issued an interim report in December, and they're continuing to look into how pervasive this idea or program was or may still be. Clearly it's a problem. 

I think that us having put the FBI on notice probably limited the scope of this and we hope that it's done for good, but that will be the continued oversight responsibility of [the Judiciary Committee] to ensure that's true.

The FBI memo highlights an alleged overlap between what it calls ‘far right white nationalist movements’ and traditional Catholics on a number of opinions or policy areas including ‘hostility to abortion rights activists online,’ along with ‘anti-LGBT sentiments.’ 

These seem to be issues about which the Catholic Church and Christian denominations have clear teachings, some of which run counter to secular liberal consensus. 

Some advocates say that federal law enforcement is targeting “traditionalist Catholics” as a proxy for Catholics who don't reject the right kind of Church teachings. 

Is that how you perceive things? 

Yes. I could not have articulated that any better than you just did. That's exactly what's going on. 

In my previous career, I was a religious liberty defense lawyer and I would go to court all the time in federal court around the country defending the rights of people of faith to just simply maintain their right of conscience, their right of belief, their right to practice and act upon their beliefs. And this flies right in the face of all of that. 

The idea is alarming that the FBI, the most powerful law enforcement agency in the federal government, would engage in a program to recruit Catholic parishioners to spy on people next to them in the pews because of their viewpoint is just frightening. 

It violates, undermines, these essential fundamental freedoms that we have as American people, and it looks very much like what we used to refer to as “viewpoint discrimination” in the courts, where the government takes adverse action against people because of their religious beliefs. And that's exactly what this looks and sounds like, and that's why I believe it got so much attention. 

We uncovered this as part of our investigations through not only the Judiciary Committee, but the House's Select Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. When we named that committee, when we began governing in this Congress under our new house majority, the Democrats, some of them, balked at the name of the committee and they said “weaponization is hyperbolic. What a heavy term.” 

Well, with an example like this, it's very difficult to describe it any other way. That's clearly what this is. It's the weaponization of the Department of Justice itself and the FBI, and it's a very, very harmful thing and something that we must stop.

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It is a polling certainty that Catholics in America tend to break down fairly evenly between being Republicans and Democrats. 

Some have argued that the FBI memo favors a ‘good’ kind of Catholic. What do you think?

A “Biden-Pelosi Catholic” possibly — I mean, that's the way it looks. And this is part, of course, of a larger problem within the Department of Justice where they have an openly engaged and censoring and silencing conservative viewpoints and particularly conservative Christian viewpoints. 

We have ample evidence of this, that there have been now court rulings that have looked at evidence and determined this. 

Probably the most alarming example is the opinion that was handed down on July 4th last summer from the Western District of Louisiana. It was in the case of Missouri and Louisiana v Biden with regard to the censorship online. 

It was uncovered and revealed in the evidence in that case that the FBI, their field office out in San Francisco, in the Silicon Valley, was meeting regularly with the big tech platforms and quite literally giving them names and persons and concepts to take off the internet, effectively to volume sensor, so that people couldn't see it, and it was pro-life viewpoints.

It was conservative viewpoints about the elections and election integrity and even parody about the president that they forced them, coerced them, colluded with them and then coerced them to take them offline. 

The court looked at all that and issued a 144-page court opinion and said this is arguably the greatest attack on free speech in US history at the hands of the FBI. 

So this is a pattern and it is a serious, serious problem because at the end of the day, what it does is it undermines the people's faith and our system of justice itself. And that's a frightening thing in a constitutional republic.

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Do you think Catholic Church’s leadership should be speaking out to keep public attention on the Richmond memo, or to defend the Catholics it criticizes?

I wouldn't pretend to… Let me say it this way, I would not purport to tell the hierarchy of the Catholic Church how to govern their parishioners or to handle that business. But I do believe that this is actually larger than just Catholic leadership. 

I believe that all people, all leaders, all people of faith, should let their voices be heard on this. I mean, it is something that really has to be addressed, and I am comforted that my colleagues in the Congress, the Republicans, are sufficiently engaged on this and we're trying to bring the appropriate amount of oversight to make sure this kind of outrageous activity never ever occurs again. 

But it does raise a lot of alarm, and I think that all of us should address it in the most direct and aggressive manner that we can.

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