FBI Overreach Is Concerning, But So Are ‘Radical-Traditionalist’ Catholics
A recently leaked memo recalls a sordid history of inappropriate surveillance, but it also identifies a concerning overlap between neo-fascists and hardline religious groups.
A recently leaked FBI memo noting an “increasingly observed interest of racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists in radical-traditionalist Catholic ideology” has triggered great alarm in conservative and religious media. Republicans like U.S. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio and Texas state Representative Lance Gooden have seized on the now-retracted memo as evidence that the FBI is “targeting” Catholics and in the process, muddied the waters around what exactly we should be concerned about.
On the one hand, the leaked memo’s suggestion of “tripwire and source development” rightfully raises concerns about unnecessary surveillance and potential infringement of First Amendment rights. After all, it’s something the bureau has done for decades to minority communities, whether it’s the history of targeting Muslims in the wake of 9/11 or the recent news of a violent felon-turned-FBI informant infiltrating the Black Lives Matter movement in Denver.
On the other hand, what’s also concerning are the reports of “radical traditionalist” Catholic groups finding common cause with openly fascist movements—a reality that is downplayed in the right-wing reaction to the memo. As I’ve reported for the Texas Observer, openly fascist groups—such as Groypers, Proud Boys, Patriot Front, the American Nationalist Initiative, and the Aryan Freedom Network—have protested outside LGTBQ+ events alongside two hardline Catholic groups: the New Columbia Movement, founded by a member of the Mussolini-loving “American Black Shirts”, and the Family Tradition and Property group, originally founded by a Brazilian antisemite who wrote about the “Jewish problem.”
It all started when the UncoverDC, an extreme right-wing outlet founded by QAnon promoter Tracy “Beanz” Diaz, broke the news of the leak on February 8. The FBI, which rarely comments on intelligence matters, issued a retraction on February 9 and said the memo did not meet its exacting standards. Despite the retraction, various outlets have continued to describe the defunct document as an “attack” on Catholics. But religious scholars who reviewed the document take issue with such characterizations.
“The thing that struck me is how careful this document was in saying they were not concerned about Catholics as a whole,” Matt Gabriele, chair of the department of religion and culture at Virginia Tech, told the Observer. “And it’s not even that they’re concerned about what are known as traditional Catholics or ‘TradCaths,’ but rather an even smaller subset who the FBI is worried about aligning with violent white nationalists and white supremacists. Unfortunately, there’s a bad faith reaction in the right-wing press parrotted by Republican politicians that this is an attack on all Catholics.”
Matthew Cressler, an associate professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston who has studied white Catholic resistance to integration in the United States, echoed the sentiment.
“The conservative response conflated terms and has cited the memo as evidence that any sort of traditional Catholic could be viewed as violent or extremist by the federal government as a result of this memo,” Cressler said. “But the memo seems to specifically identify a particularly extremist sect of what is already a very small subset of Catholics nationally.”
But Cressler hesitated to cut the FBI too much slack due to their long history of surveilling, infiltrating, and subverting Black religious communities.
“It can both be true that the FBI has a bad track record of surveillance and targeting religious communities, and that a certain way of being Catholic is increasingly attractive to fascist nationalists and white supremacist organizations,” Cressler said.
Ironically, the very history of FBI overreach in minority and Muslim communities that makes the leaked memo so concerning tends to be omitted by the loudest conservative voices.
“To the extent that some groups are criticizing this report, I think there’s validity in their criticisms,” said Mike German, a former FBI agent and now fellow at the Brennan Center. German worked undercover to infiltrate white supremacist groups in the 1990s and has become a leading critic of the bureau following his retirement from law enforcement. “But I wish they would also criticize the reports that were broadly targeting Muslim sects, Black identity extremists, and others I’ve been criticizing for years.”
In German’s view, the very type of intelligence reporting the memo represents is problematic because it proposes the surveillance of groups based on what they believe as opposed to investigating incidents of actual violence, hate crimes, or other types of criminal activity and noting whether there is a pattern in terms of ideological affiliation.
German told Observer the memo reflects a flawed approach to law enforcement focused on prevention and tries to create buckets of suspect communities that could be monitored for potential domestic terror activity. “It’d be a lot more effective for law enforcement to arrest the people who committed an assault in front of them, perhaps an assault against a journalist who has got the entire thing on camera and start collecting evidence of who is actually violent. Then you will start to see patterns of who is involved in the criminality,” German said.
The example involving a journalist that German alluded to is familiar because it happened to me. While I was reporting on a protest in University Park that featured a sizable contingent of the New Columbia Movement, I was assaulted by a man after being singled out as “unwelcome” by the organizer of the protest, Kelly Neidert—who recently identified herself as a member of the New Columbia Movement women’s cohort. The man who assaulted me does not appear to be a member of the New Columbia Movement, but it is well documented he is a regular attendee at protests organized by Neidert, where he has made death threats.
“It is troubling that a group would act in common cause with a person like that, and that is something that is potentially worthy of law enforcement attention in the context in which that occurred,” German said. “Instead of memos that make simplistic links between beliefs and violence, I would much rather see the examples of people of this ideology committing bad acts and how they determined that the bad act had some link to this ideology.”
The New Columbia Movement—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 Fatherland Front—has been described by antifascist researcher Kristopher Goldsmith as a Christofascist organization. They’ve played a key role in the recent spate of anti-LGTBQ+ mobilizations across the United States and have been seen protesting alongside neo-fascist groups on numerous occasions. While there do not appear to be any confirmed instances of members of the New Columbia Movement committing violence, one of their members was detained by police after disrupting a sermon and drag show at the University of Texas at Dallas in October 2022.
Meanwhile, several people affiliated with the “Groyper Army,” a neofascist movement led by self-described devout Catholic Nick Fuentes, have been arrested on charges related to January 6, and at least one has been accused of making credible mass violence threats.
So while it may be the case that it is inappropriate for the FBI to suggest the surveillance of groups without citing evidence of the crimes they’ve linked to the groups, it’s also almost certainly the case that radical-traditionalist Catholic ideologues like Fuentes and the New Columbia Movement represent the phenomenon described in the leaked FBI memo. As the adage goes: More than one thing can be true at the same time.