Republicans were raring to interrogate Attorney General Merrick Garland at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday—working to score political points on many of their favorite topics, including Hunter Biden, the safety of Supreme Court justices, and “parents who are angry at school boards and administrators.”
But one new Republican talking point got a curious amount of airtime: anti-Catholic bias in the FBI.
Sen. Josh Hawley, with an assist from Sen. Ted Cruz, drilled down on two cases that have been popular fixations of conservative media. The first was the arrest of a man named Mark Houck, now a celebrity in pro-life circles, who was charged with violating a law that makes it a federal crime to harm or intimidate abortion service providers after he twice shoved a 72-year-old volunteer at a Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia. Last September, the FBI arrested Houck. Since then, Houck and his defenders have argued that the conduct of the federal agents who arrested him was wildly out of proportion to the nature of the crime. (Houck says that 20 to 30 federal agents came to his house with heavy firearms and terrorized his wife and seven children.)
“You used an unbelievable show of force, with guns that, I just note, liberals usually decry,” Hawley said to Garland. “You’re happy to deploy them against Catholics and innocent children.”
Garland replied that the FBI refutes Hawley’s description of the arrest. He also said that the decisions about the execution of Houck’s arrest warrant were made by field agents on the scene assessing the situation, not by Justice Department higher-ups. (Houck, for his part, never denied that he shoved the volunteer but claimed it was a matter of protecting his son from the volunteer’s harassment, rather than interfering with abortion services. In January, Houck was acquitted of the charges.)
Hawley wasn’t the first to bring up Houck’s case in the hearing; Sen. Ted Cruz, in a display of indignant disbelief, contrasted Houck’s wife’s description of the arrest—“two dozen agents clad in body armor and ballistic helmets and shields and a battering ram showed up at his house pointing rifles at his family,” Cruz said—with the failures to arrest people who firebombed pro-life crisis pregnancy centers after last year’s Dobbs decision.
But Hawley went further, arguing there was a clear “pattern” of anti-Catholic bias at play. (He illustrated it by holding up a photo, ostensibly from Houck’s arrest, of two or three armed agents in vests, one of whom appears to be holding a shield and wearing an assault-style rifle.) A triumphant accusation came next, with Hawley citing a particular memo that blew up on social media over the last couple weeks.
“The FBI field office in Richmond, on the 23rd of January of this year, issued a memorandum in which they advocated for, and I quote, the exploration of new avenues for tripwire and source development against traditionalist Catholics,” Hawley said. “That’s their language. Including those who favor the Latin Mass. Attorney General, are you cultivating sources and spies in Latin Mass parishes and other Catholic parishes around the country?”
Unlike with the Houck case, this particular accusation animated Garland, who quickly reassured Hawley that the Justice Department does not target religious groups. “I saw the document you have. It’s appalling,” he said. “I’m in complete agreement with you.”
This, for most any viewer, would seem like the clearest possible admission that the FBI actually had written some kind of sinister anti-Catholic memo. But that is not correct. Garland may genuinely be in “complete agreement” that the memo in question didn’t meet FBI standards (more on that in a minute)—and he may have wanted to avoid splitting hairs about why—but by asserting that he was in “complete agreement” with Hawley, Garland helped feed a false narrative constructed by the right-wing outrage machine.
The FBI memo is real: Posted online by a conservative whistleblower in late July, it identifies increasing interest among “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” in “radical-traditionalist Catholic” ideology. Since its leak, the memo has been touted by conservative media as proof that the FBI see traditional Catholics as extremists—and that it has been targeting them for spying and infiltration.
But that’s not what the memo actually shows. At no point does the memo imply that the threat is the radical traditionalists; rather, the threat is that “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” (RMVEs, in the government abbreviations) will be attracted to—or otherwise find a home among—the radical traditionalists (Rad Trads, as they’re more popularly known). Per the report, the Rad Trad community provides “RMVEs a persistent Catholic-oriented base with which to interact.” The memo states that RMVE actors have “sought out and attended traditionalist Catholic houses of worship, as well as used language indicative of adherence to [radical traditionalist] ideology in social media postings.”
At all times, the memo is focused on monitoring the racist and violent extremists hanging out among the traditionalist Catholics, not the traditionalist Catholics themselves. In fact, the FBI agent who authored the report was careful to note that Rad Trads were themselves a small minority of Catholics and that they were also distinct from plain old Trads, conservatives who long for a pre-1960s version of the church and who are not, ultimately, a concern.
Rad Trads are so called because they hold extreme beliefs that are often virulently antisemitic, Islamophobic, and misogynistic in nature. Researchers have long warned about the hateful ideologies being cultivated in online Rad Trad communities. But even they aren’t necessarily an issue; the report simply suggests it might be a good idea to mitigate racist, extremist threats “through outreach to traditionalist Catholic parishes and the development of sources.” At no point does the memo imply Catholicism itself is the problem, or that there was any evidence Rad Trads are themselves inclined to violence.
Few seem to have picked up on this distinction. In early February, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and Republican Reps. Jim Jordan and Mike Johnson demanded the FBI explain the memo. Catholic media condemned it as religious persecution. Fox News published seven articles on the topic; Tucker Carlson declared that the FBI had “joined in the hunt for Christians.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board rebuked the FBI for its “Catholic Canard.” A columnist at the Washington Post scoffed that “the most dangerous thing a Rad Trad might do is leave a rosary lying about for someone to slip on.” And 20 state attorneys general sent a letter to Garland and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray writing “with outrage and alarm” over “Anti-Catholic bigotry” that could be “festering in the FBI.”
Quickly, the FBI retracted the memo. It gave a statement noting that the document “does not meet the exacting standards of the FBI.”
The memo does have its flaws. Notably, it cites as one of its main sources the Southern Poverty Law Center—not exactly a beloved group among conservatives, and a group that tends to use the term “extremist” more liberally than the FBI, which is interested primarily in the possibility of violence, rather than hate speech. The memo also, in an appendix, ran the SPLC’s list of extremist Catholic groups, which the FBI did not separately verify. This memo was never meant to be seen externally, but now that it is, the author likely regrets that list’s inclusion.
If Hawley has read the full report, he likely knows he’s being intentionally misleading in arguing that it shows that “this Justice Department is targeting Catholics, targeting people of faith, specifically for their faith views.” To prove that point, let’s take a look, again, at Hawley’s introduction of the topic:
The FBI field office in Richmond on the 23rd of January of this year issued a memorandum in which they advocated for, and I quote, the exploration of new avenues for tripwire and source development against traditionalist Catholics. That’s their language. Including those who favor the Latin Mass.
Notice that Hawley doesn’t clarify when the direct quote ends. The quote doesn’t, as his reading implies, end after the first sentence. The quote, in its full context, reads:
FBI Richmond assesses the increasingly observed interest of RMVEs in [radical-traditionalist Catholic] ideology almost certainly presents new opportunities for threat mitigation through the exploration of new avenues for tripwire and source development. This assessment is based on reporting [redacted] and liaison and contact reporting demonstrating RMVE actors have sought out and attended traditionalist Catholic houses of worship, as well as used language indicative of adherence to RTC ideology in social media postings.
The words “against traditionalist Catholics” aren’t in this paragraph—because they are Hawley’s words, not those of the FBI. Garland may agree that the FBI agent in Richmond should have done more independent research before finalizing the memo, but if Garland believes that this language shows anti-Catholic bias, he is buying a fairly extreme right-wing argument: that racially motivated extremists are a protected category as long as their beliefs have a religious justification, and that radical traditionalists are normal, faithful Catholics who simply love the Latin Mass.
It’s true that the Rad Trads do love the Latin Mass, as well as black-and-white morality, and highly conservative views about sex and gender. But to say that Rad Trads are simply old-fashioned, traditionalist Catholics of a certain set of religious beliefs is to ignore the difference between traditionalism and radicalism. The Rad Trads haven’t proven themselves a violent or particularly worrying group, beyond online hate speech. But if conservative Catholics are refusing to make a distinction between legitimate traditionalist Catholics and the racist violent extremists drawn to the Rad Trad community, then they’re doing their own faith a major disservice. Hawley, who is not a Catholic, likely doesn’t care.