On February 13, Bishop Barry Knestout of the Diocese of Richmond demanded that members of Congress from Virginia speak out against a leaked FBI memorandum that linked Catholics to violent extremism. The memo claimed that “radical-traditional” Catholics with an interest in the Traditional Latin Mass were likely to have ties to “the far-right white nationalist movement.”
The memo, titled “Interest of Racially or Ethnically Motivated Violent Extremists in Radical-Traditionalist Catholic Ideology Almost Certainly Presents New Mitigation Opportunities,” was produced by the FBI’s Richmond field office and released on February 8 by UncoverDC, a news website.
Bishop Knestout was alarmed by the memo, calling it a “threat to religious liberty.” He urged lawmakers to ensure that such “offenses against the constitutionally protected free exercise of religion” do not occur again. He stated, “Racism, religious bigotry, violence, and discrimination have no place in our Church or teachings.”
The memo explicitly pointed to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP) and the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) as potential points of contact for outreach. Both groups offer the Latin Mass within the FBI’s jurisdiction in Richmond, Virginia.
The bishop’s response is critical to protecting religious freedom and to ensure that the Catholic faith and its followers are not wrongly associated with extremist groups or violence. As he pointed out, “It is imperative that our elected officials actively denounce such baseless claims and work to ensure that every individual’s constitutional right to freedom of religion is respected and protected.”
On February 9, the FBI’s national communications office confirmed that the leaked document came from its Richmond field office and issued a statement retracting it.
Read Bishop Knestout’s full statement below:
“People of all faith groups have long found refuge in the constitutional protections of our great nation. We all seek to share in God’s gift of life, enjoy the fruits of liberty that our nation offers, and assist one another in ensuring the common good.
I was alarmed to read the reports written late last week about the contents of the internal memo created by the Richmond Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I was also surprised to learn of the mention of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter (FSSP), a religious order, which celebrates the traditional form of the Catholic Mass. FSSP has served with devotion for many years the parishes within our Catholic community and to the faithful of our diocese who appreciate this form of the Catholic Mass in our diocese.
The leaked document should be troubling and offensive to all communities of faith, as well as all Americans. I am grateful for the Virginia Attorney General and 19 attorneys general who have called upon the government to publicly release all materials related to the production of this memo. If evidence of extremism exists, it should be rooted out, but not at the expense of religious freedom. A preference for traditional forms of worship and holding closely to the Church’s teachings on marriage, family, human sexuality, and the dignity of the human person does not equate with extremism.
Religious freedom is an important matter acknowledged every June by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in which my brother bishops and I value and celebrate Religious Freedom Week. Most recently, on Jan. 16, 2023, the U.S. celebrated Religious Freedom Day with USCCB Chair for Religious Liberty Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, noting ‘there is no freedom without the truth.’ It is my hope we get to the truth of the memo published last week.
Our faith and our Church instruct us to be a people of peace and to uphold human dignity. We do not condone violence. As Pope Francis wrote in his 2017 letter for the celebration of World Day of Peace, ‘Violence profanes the name of God’ and ‘the name of God cannot be used to justify violence. Peace alone is holy.’
I call on all national representatives from the Commonwealth of Virginia in the House and Senate to exercise their role of oversight, to publicly condemn this threat to religious liberty, and to ensure that such offenses against the constitutionally protected free exercise of religion do not occur again. Racism, religious bigotry, violence, and discrimination have no place in our Church or teachings.”