Why is Hawley accusing the FBI of being anti-Catholic?
The showdown occurred — as they often do with Sen. Josh Hawley — in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The committee meets in large room in the Hart Senate Office Building, with most Senators seated behind a carved wooden desk. It’s from there that the Missouri Republican peers down on his witnesses and begins his inquiries — combative moments that later get chopped and put on social media and land him an interview on Fox News, where he’ll get another five minutes to sound off on his issue of the day in front of larger conservative audience.
In March, the witness was Attorney General Merrick Garland and the issue was whether there was an anti-Catholic bias in the FBI.
“Attorney General,” Hawley said. “Are you cultivating sources and spies in Latin Mass Parishes and other Catholic parishes around the country?”
For someone not tapped into conservative media, Hawley’s question may have seemed unusual — after all, President Joe Biden, who appointed the FBI director, is Catholic and goes to church regularly. Hawley is not Catholic, even though he went to Rockhurst High School, a Catholic Jesuit prep school in Kansas City. When he lived in Columbia, he attended Evangelical Presbyterian services at The Crossing Church.
But the line of questioning shows how a relatively obscure event — like an FBI memo targeting a small sect of the Catholic Church — can quickly be amplified by lawmakers and spun into the larger political culture wars.
“I don’t know about the Latin Mass. I’m not Catholic. I don’t know the nuances,” Hawley told The Star. “But it doesn’t matter, right? Religious doctrine. It’s a principle in this country, our First Amendment, that you shouldn’t be targeted by government because of your religious beliefs.”
The Latin Mass — called the Tridentine Mass — came out of the Council of Trent, which ended in 1563. The liturgy was performed in Latin and the priest faced away from the congregation. No matter where a Catholic went, anywhere in the world, they participated in the exact same service.
“There’s a certain aura, a certain mystique,” said Thomas Groome, a theology and education professor at Boston College. “And it was the same yesterday, today and forever. You could be in Central Africa or Brazil or the United States or Poland and basically you had the same Mass everywhere.”
In the 1960s, the Vatican moved to modernize the ritual. Called the Ordinary Form or Novus Ordo, priests turned and faced the congregation. They started using everyday language. In some parishes, they started using a more modern folk music.
While there was some early backlash, most Catholics accepted the new way of celebrating Mass and came to appreciate the fact that it allowed for more participation. But there was a small group that preferred and sought out the traditional Latin Mass. That group is growing in the United States, even though last year Pope Francis discouraged the form, saying it is a source of division in the Church.
There is no universal reason some Catholics are drawn to the Latin Mass, though it has been associated with a right-wing tilt in American politics. Some are drawn to the tradition, others might appreciate the Gothic aesthetics, others might have more conservative views about Pope Francis’ attempts to make the church more open and welcoming. Others are outright hostile to the changes in the church that took place in the 1960s. Sometimes, it’s a combination.
“People are called traditionalists because of their aesthetic tastes,” said Richard Garnett, the director of the Program on Church, State and Society at Notre Dame University. “And that’s given some political baggage like they’re hostile to the pope or they don’t believe in the Second Vatican Council and that’s a mistake.”
Garnett said that could have been the mistake an FBI agent in Richmond, Virginia made when crafting a memo in January. In it, the agent wrote about how people classified by the FBI as “racially or ethnically motivated violent extremists” were increasingly drawn to radical-traditionalist Catholicism — which it characterized as people who reject the changes made by the Vatican in the 1960s and could be seen as heretics by the Church.
It suggested that Catholic dioceses in Richmond could be a good place to cultivate sources for people driven toward extremism. The redacted copy of the report does not cite a specific threat that concerned the FBI, but wrote that there could be concerns over legislation or judicial decisions involving abortion, immigration, affirmative action and LGBTQ issues.
The memo was leaked by a former FBI agent in February and quickly picked up attention in conservative news media and religious publications. By February, the House Judiciary Committee demanded documents from the FBI. On March 20, they sent up a follow up letter asking for the documents.
Hawley questioned Garland about the memo in between the two House letters. A religious conservative, Hawley said the issue wasn’t about the ideology of people who gravitate toward Traditional Latin Mass. Instead, he said the FBI wasn’t respecting religious liberty because he said they were targeting Catholics drawn to the Traditional Latin Mass, highlighting the FBI’s conflation between the more extremist elements of the radical-traditionalist movement and those drawn to the old style of Mass.
“It has nothing to do with church doctrine. I don’t know about that, I don’t care about that, in terms of from a governmental perspective,” Hawley said. “From a constitutional perspective, it doesn’t matter. What matters is the government cannot target people on the basis of their religious faith because they think it’s suspicious.”
Garland said the Justice Department does not do investigations based on religion. He called the FBI memo “appalling” and said he agreed with Hawley that it was inappropriate. The FBI has retracted the memo, saying it didn’t meet its standards.
“The Justice Department does not do that,” Garland said in response to Hawley. “It does not do investigations based on religion. It’s appalling. I’m in complete agreement with you. I understand that the FBI has withdrawn it and is now looking into how this ever could have happened.”
Garnett, who focuses on First Amendment law, said he believed it was appropriate for Garland to retract the memo, though said just the fact that it existed didn’t necessarily mean the FBI had violated anyone’s religious freedom.
“I think that just the existence of a memo probably doesn’t cross that line, but it’s a step in the wrong direction to be classifying citizens on the basis of worrisome religious beliefs and non-worrisome religious beliefs,” Garnett said. “That’s not really a road we want governments going down, generally speaking.”
Asma Uddin, a fellow for religious liberty at the Freedom Forum, said the FBI memo felt similar to when the New York Police Department was monitoring Muslim communities in New York City after the 9/11 attacks. She said that even if the government is concerned about violence within a
“You can’t just spy on entire communities because of a very particular limited risk,” Uddin said. “There has to be a way to narrow down the way the government does it.”
Hawley told the Star he would have raised an issue with the surveillance of a mosque, saying it would be equally inappropriate.
Earlier this month, the FBI turned over the same memo to the House Judiciary Committee with fewer redactions. The Committee sent out a press release, saying it learned that the FBI suggested reaching out to churches and religious groups to “sensitize their congregations to the warning signs of radicalization.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, the Ohio Republican who chairs the committee, then subpoenaed the FBI, saying he wanted more information.
Immediately after, Hawley again criticized Garland — this time in a letter — and demanded answers to whether the FBI had undercover agents in other Catholic Churches.
“This is an unconscionable assault on American Catholics’ First Amendment rights and an abdication of your duty to enforce the law without fear or favor,” Hawley wrote. He claimed there was an “emerging pattern” of FBI bias against Catholics because of the memo and the September arrest of a man who was accused of shoving a 72-year-old who escorted women into a Philadelphia abortion clinic.
That evening, Hawley appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, claiming Garland lied to him.
“They regard churches apparently as the enemy,” Hawley said. “And church going Americans as akin to terrorists.”
Days later, he sent out a fundraising email under the headline “The FBI is ATTACKING Catholics.”
“In Joe Biden’s Godless administration, people of faith are under attack by the federal government,” the email said. “Your right to practice your faith is in jeopardy – and we MUST take action.”
His supporters could take action by clicking on a link that said “defend your freedom to worship.” It directed them to a site where they could donate to his campaign.