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Yes, the FBI is problematic. So are Catholic nationalists.

The recently leaked FBI memo on radical-traditionalist Catholics is troubling—but the church still has a Christian nationalism problem.
Catholic Voices

Earlier this month, a former special agent leaked an internal memo from the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Richmond, Virginia field office. The memo claimed to assess the “increasingly observed interest of racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists (RMVEs) in radical-traditionalist Catholic (RTC) ideology.” It named “a growing overlap between the far-right white nationalist movement and RTCs,” warning that right-wing movements would attempt to exploit this overlap “both virtually via social media and in-person at places of worship” and suggesting that this presented “new opportunities for mitigation efforts.” In short, the memo argued that the FBI should pursue “outreach” and develop “sources” in traditionalist Catholic parishes to thwart the threat of right-wing extremism.

The headlines practically wrote themselves. “The FBI’s Catholic Canard.” “The FBI’s Targeting of ‘Radical-Traditional Catholics’ Bodes Ill.” “The FBI Might Be Infiltrating Your Local Latin Mass.” The memo seemed to confirm the fears of religious conservatives already deeply distrustful of the federal government. Critically, the memo did clarify that “radical-traditionalist Catholics” made up a small minority within an already small minority. It defined “RTCs” as traditionalist Catholics adhering to antisemitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, white supremacist ideology who were “separate and distinct” from Catholics who simply preferred Latin Mass.

Despite this, the memo was quickly offered up as evidence that the feds were persecuting all “traditional” Catholics. Twenty state attorneys general penned a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland and FBI Director Christopher Wray exclaiming “anti-Catholic bigotry appears to be festering in the FBI, and the Bureau is treating Catholics as potential terrorists because of their beliefs.” The FBI rescinded the memo, but the damage was already done.

Spoiler alert: This piece will not be a defense of the FBI. By all accounts, this was a bad memo. Hot takes from left, right, and center—even from current and former FBI officials—seem to agree that it was poorly sourced, shoddily researched, and did not follow the Bureau’s own internal guidelines. Furthermore, the FBI has a terrible track record when it comes to targeting religious communities. But that is not code for a deep state conspiracy against Christians. On the contrary, as religious historian Lerone Martin writes, “the Bureau’s history reveals it has long had a conservative Christian preference in its hiring practices, culture and investigative priorities.”

In his book The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover (Princeton University Press), Martin demonstrates that, far from targeting them for surveillance, the FBI actively recruited Catholics and even went so far as to integrate Catholic practices into its institutional life. Over the past century, Martin argues, the FBI has aided and abetted the rise of white Christian nationalism. The irony of the uproar around this particular memo is that the FBI’s terrible track record has largely pertained to the unlawful surveillance, infiltration, subversion, and incarceration of progressive, Black, and Muslim communities.

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However, there is real danger in drawing the right conclusion for the wrong reasons. It is true that this memo is problematic. The idea that a particular liturgical preference maps neatly and inherently onto a particular politics should raise red flags for historians, religious studies scholars, and, frankly, for most ordinary Catholics. Yet, the conservative reaction has taken that argument a few steps further. Critics have implied that it is impossible to be “traditionally” Catholic and violent, extremist, or racist. As one opinion piece put it, the very thought that “Rad Trads” might be dangerous is “laughable”—that they might be prone to violent extremism, “risible!” Perhaps, but only if one operates with the narrowest notion of what it means to be Catholic. There is no need for us to single out “radical traditionalists.” It is simply true that there are Catholics gravitating toward right-wing Christian nationalist movements and that those movements, in turn, have found something useful in a particular kind of Catholicism.

To read this memo, for all its flaws, and conclude there is “nothing to see here” is to err on the side of willful ignorance. It is to operate with the convenience of insisting that any extremist claiming to be Catholic is no true Catholic. Because, as it turns out, there are avowed Christian nationalists, fascists, and white supremacists who self-identify as Catholic.

There is an increasing overlap between the far-right of U.S. politics and the far-right of the Catholic Church. As Kathryn Joyce and Ben Lorber have reported, far-right figures including Milo Yiannopoulos, the Canadian white nationalist Faith Goldy, “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander, and the so-called “Kent State gun girl” Kaitlin Bennett have all “rebranded themselves as ‘traditional’ Catholics (or ‘trad-Caths,’ in internet parlance).” They have also “allied themselves with an existing network of far-right Catholics that includes Pizzagate provocateur-turned conservative commentator Jack Posobiec, Trump confidant and adviser Steve Bannon, and groyper-guru Nick Fuentes himself.” 

Scholars and journalists sounded the alarm long before a FBI agent warned of “RMVEs” and “RTCs.” Alongside Joyce and Lorber, Rebecca Bratten Weiss, Massimo Faggioli, John Gehring, Brian Fraga, Father Bryan Massingale, Jack Jenkins, and contributors to the website Where Peter Is, to name a few, have all charted the rising tide of the Catholic right in one way or another. Like the alt-right before it, this is a culture that thrives online.

But it is not limited to the echo chambers of the internet. Steven Monacelli, for example, recently observed “two hardline Catholic groups”—the New Columbia Movement and Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP)—protesting alongside fascist Groypers, Proud Boys, Patriot Front, the American Nationalist Initiative, and the Aryan Freedom Network in Texas. The New Columbia Movement is a “self-identified Christian nationalist group that wants to turn the United States into a theocracy and shares iconography with historically fascist movements such as Carlism, Falangism, and the Fatherhood front.” Catholics were among those who stormed the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, and they wore their Catholicism on their sleeves as they did it—bearing, for instance, a statue of the Infant of Prague at the scene of the crime. Catholic white nationalists, fascists, and even self-identified Nazis showed up at the Unite the Right Rally that led to the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

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Much like the memo before them, these scholars and journalists have been careful to distinguish the extreme right-wing Roman Catholic “fringe” from Catholics writ large. Yet, lest we leave with the impression that this only pertains to a few bad apples, a recent PRRI/Brookings Institute survey found that 30 percent of white Catholics can be counted as either adherents to or sympathizers with Christian nationalist ideas. In other words, 30 percent of surveyed white Catholics either completely or mostly agreed with the following statements:

  • The U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation.
  • U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.
  • If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.
  • Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
  • God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.

Christian nationalists are more likely than other Americans to adhere to anti-Black racism, anti-immigrant views, antisemitic views, anti-Muslim views, and patriarchal understandings of traditional gender roles. While Catholics who openly identify as nationalists or fascists may be exceptions to the rule, these ideas are not “fringe.” To the contrary, they were foundational for the last U.S. presidential administration, an administration that counted numerous Catholics among its key architects, including Steve Bannon, Steven Miller, Sebastian Gorka, Kellyanne Conway, and Bill Barr.

A majority of white Catholics voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and a majority voted to reelect him. Not only that, the more frequently they attended Mass the more likely white Catholics were to vote for Trump again. In the buildup to the 2020 election, a white Catholic priest called Black Lives Matter protestors “maggots and parasites,” another declared “you cannot be a Catholic and a Democrat,” and some bishops tacitly agreed. As Father James Martin among others have argued, Catholic leaders contributed to the conspiratorial climate that sought to delegitimize President Joe Biden’s election and ultimately led to the violence on January 6.

This is not the first time in U.S. history that white Catholics have fought on the frontlines of right-wing resistance to multiracial democracy. As with the FBI’s troubled past, there is a history here too. For instance, when Martin Luther King Jr. arrived in Chicago he met massive resistance from white Catholics. White Catholic Chicagoans hurled rocks, cherry bombs, and racist epithets at civil rights marchers outside Marquette Park that summer. They shouted “White Power!” and “Burn them like Jews!” They flew Confederate flags and carried handmade signs scrawled with swastikas and the n-word. And they did so sporting Catholic high school letter jackets, holy medals, and crucifixes.

The mob pulled a Black Catholic priest, Father George Clements, out of a car and beat him. Someone shouted “this is for you, nun!” and hit Sister Mary Angelica Schultz in the head with a brick. King reported to news cameras, “I have never in my life seen such hate. Not in Mississippi or Alabama. This is a terrible thing.” Then as now, this was not an “extreme fringe.” As I’ve written elsewhere, hundreds wrote letters voicing their support for the violence. “[T]hat nun should not have entered that white area with the Negroes to demonstrate against whites,” one woman wrote in Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper. “As devout a Catholic as I am,” she declared, “my temper would show if a white person—nun or priest—worked against me and my white people. I’d be likely to throw a rock.”

These lessons from our Catholic past are not offered to make some blunt, broad brushstroke argument condemning all white Catholics. I am one myself. An honest reckoning of our history demands that white Catholics confront the clear and present danger that racist, right-wing, and Christian nationalist forces pose to our church and the future of our democracy. As Eric Martin puts it, “the threat is not that white nationalists will take over the Catholic Church. The threat is that the Catholic Church harbors a culture sufficiently friendly to white nationalism that people can comfortably embrace both the faith and the most extreme forms of racial hatred.”

Yes, this memo suggesting that the FBI target and surveil Catholics is troubling. It is equally troubling that there are more and more Catholics who find white Christian nationalism compelling.  


Image: Unsplash/Colin Lloyd

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About the author

Matthew J. Cressler

Matthew J. Cressler is associate professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston. He has written for America, The Atlantic, National Catholic Reporter, Religion News Service, The Revealer, Slate, and Zocalo Public Square. You can find him on Twitter @mjcressler.

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