The Watchers and the Watched

Dr. Malcolm Cross

A whistleblower recently released an internal FBI memorandum claiming “Radical-Traditionalistic-Catholics” could become terrorists and therefore the FBI should spy on the Roman Catholic Church and affiliated organizations.  The FBI has retracted the memo, claiming it’s not based on any genuine evidence of wrongdoing by “RTCs” and it assures us it won’t investigate the free expression of religion under the First Amendment.  Nonetheless, skepticism should be maintained.

The memo in question is “Interest of Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists in Radical-Traditionalist Catholic Ideology Almost Certainly Presents New Mitigation Opportunities.”  It was leaked by FBI agent Kyle Seraphin, currently suspended without pay for whistleblowing.  

In essence, the memo defines RTCs as “typically categorized by the rejection of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) as a valid church council; disdain for most of the popes elected since Vatican II, particularly Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II; and frequent adherence to anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBTQ, and white supremacist ideology. Radical-traditionalist Catholics compose a small minority of overall Roman Catholic adherents and are separate and distinct from ‘traditionalist Catholics’ who prefer the Traditional Latin Mass and pre-Vatican II teachings and traditions, without the more extremist ideological beliefs and violent rhetoric.”  It warns that white supremacists may try to recruit RTCs for terrorist activities.  It advocates FBI investigation and penetration of the Catholic Church and various Catholic “hate groups.” The memo can be read at

The memo is reminiscent of the virulent anti-Catholic prejudice expressed by several Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, including then-Senator Kamala Harris, when investigating some of former President Trump’s judicial appointees.  California Senator Diane Feinstein raised questions about Amy Coney Barrett’s status as a “handmaiden” in the Catholic “People of Praise” organization, saying Barrett’s faith was too strong to make her trustworthy.  Then-Senator Harris and others argued that membership in the Knights of Columbus could disqualify Catholic nominees from service as judges.  

Yet however ugly the criticisms of the faith of Catholic judicial nominees may have been, the Senators who made them were well within their rights to do so, and to vote on the basis of their prejudices.  Of course, it would have been far more honest if they had said they were opposing the nominees because the nominees would probably support the overturning of Roe v. Wade (as Justice Barrett ultimately did).  No doubt the senators would have been far more supportive of the Catholic nominees had the nominees said that though they were Catholics they rejected the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion.  But in any event, given the outsized importance of the Supreme Court in the shaping of public policy, questions about judges’ stands on public policy issues are legitimate, as are senators’ decisions to vote for or against confirmation of judges based on how they think judges are likely to decide particular cases.

But the implications of the memo are far more serious.  Of course, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have not only a right but a duty to investigate terrorists, whether the terrorists are motivated by politics or by a sick interpretation of Christianity, Islam, or any other faith.  As FBI officials admitted, once the memo was published, the evidence of prospective RTC terrorism is practically nonexistent.  The “evidence” consists of little more than unsubstantiated accusations by the Southern Poverty Law Center that certain Catholic organizations are “hate groups,” as well as speculative articles in Salon and The Atlantic.  The FBI now says that unsubstantiated accusations do not justify investigations of the Catholic Church or the recruitment of informants from within the Church, and in any event, it will not investigate the free expression of religious beliefs consistent with the First Amendment.

But would the FBI be so restrained had the memo not been exposed by the whistleblower?  Had the secrecy of the memo been maintained, would the FBI still reject investigations and penetrations of the Catholic Church?  Or would it have begun investigating the Church under cover of secrecy?  What other cloak-and-dagger activities might have been pursued?  And what else are the FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies up to that we don’t know about?  Our law enforcement, intelligence, and other national security agencies claim to watch over us to preserve our safety.  But we must watch over them as well.

Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present).  He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014.  He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.

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