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The Church in Vietnam


Sin cities

Delegates from the Holy See were in Hanoi this week for bilateral meetings with Vietnamese officials. Relations between the Church and the Communist Government have improved in the booming country, but a recent visitor found rampant materialism and limited religious freedom

The residence of the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City – an ancient colonial mansion in whose grounds one can also find the city’s oldest building – is an oasis of peace amid the constant roar of the motorbikes filling the streets of the city that was once known as Saigon. But visitors arriving there cannot fail to notice the slogan written on a 10-metre-long banner hanging just across the road, on the wall of the local People Committee’s headquarters: “The party, the people and the army actively respond to the campaign: ‘Study and follow the moral examples of Ho Chi Minh’”.

It is a stark reminder that Vietnam, despite recent economic progress and a breakthrough in its relationship with the Vatican, is still a Communist country.

Just like the small flags bearing a hammerand-sickle symbol on street corners, that is something that the absent-minded traveller might easily overlook among the neon shopsigns and street-vendor stalls lining the city’s avenues. Vietnam has a vibrant economy – growing at around 7 per cent per year in the last 10 years – after business-friendly reforms in the past decades. But, just like China, political freedom has not come with greater economic freedom.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that the Catholic Church – with around eight million members, or around 9 per cent of the population – has gained from the country’s relative opening up to the outside world, and that its freedom has increased in recent years. “If we compare today’s situation with the past there are improvements. In the past, if we wanted to receive new seminarians, or to ordain new priests, we had to apply for official permission. Now we don’t, and we can transfer priests from parish to parish freely and so on,” Mgr

A figure of Mary in traditional Saigon dress in the pastoral centre of Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese

Peter Nguyen Van Kham, an auxiliary bishop in Ho Chi Minh City, told me recently.

The regime’s cautious détente with Catholicism isn’t limited to the local Church. Last year, the Holy See appointed its first diplomatic representative to Vietnam since 1975, when a decades-long war ended with the reunification of the two halves of the country under Communist rule.

That same year, after the conquest of Saigon, one of the first targets of the new rulers was the Catholic Church: Mgr François Xavier Nguyên Van Thuân, then an auxiliary bishop in Saigon and nephew of South Vietnam’s first President, was put under arrest for 13 years and, after his release, emigrated to the Vatican where Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal. Now, the new Vatican representative, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, though officially residing in Singapore, has visited the country several times.

Recently, the Archbishop of Hanoi has set up two rooms in his own residence for Archbishop Girelli to work and live in. This is because the Vatican ambassador’s official residence in central Hanoi – a building dating back to the early twentieth century – was among many church properties seized by the North’s Communist rulers after the Second World War. It is now one of the buildings the bishops are trying to claim back from the Government – so far, with little success.

Seized properties are probably the most contentious issue between the Communist regime and the Church. In the South, church authorities and local government have often managed to come to an agreement. This has happened at one restored property, the large pastoral centre, headed by Bishop Kham, in the Ho Chi Minh City Archdiocese. But in some cases, especially in the North, the Church has taken a more vocal and aggressive stance on the issue – and tension with the Government has been growing. Redemptorist Fathers, for example, organise silent prayer vigils for seized properties attended by thousands of people every month. Gangs of local youths have often targeted Catholics in retaliation.

Such rivalries present a risk, says Bishop Kham: “We are divided and we criticise each another – that’s not good.” Fr Thomas Thien Cam, a Dominican retired professor with strong government links, also warns against Catholics taking an aggressive stance: “The Vatican wants us to mend ties with the regime,” he says, “but some bishops resist, as many in the Church still think like in the past, where you needed to be anti-Communist to be faithful. We have to be prophetic, not turn into political opponents.”

Bishop Kham, who is also deputy secretary of the bishops’ conference, explains that the current policy of the Vietnamese Church is to try to resolve each dispute locally, on a caseby-case basis, while lobbying the Government to change the property law. The current one, he says, “is not good enough, and creates opportunities for corruption, bribery, oppression of the poor”. Farmers, for example, have often seen their land seized to make way for new urban development projects.

But some priests are afraid that focusing too much on the restitution of church property risks alienating the people, especially nonCatholics, who have so far failed to give their support. “We shouldn’t claim our property but advocate for the rights of the poor. Jesus didn’t have a piece of land,” says Camillian Fr John Toai, who runs a centre for people with HIV.

Fr Toai is at the forefront of what – according to Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Mân, Archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City – is the real challenge for the future of Vietnam’s Church: winning the right to act in the fields of education and health care. “Despite progress in religious freedom,” he says, “we are still not free to run charitable activities, such as open-

4 | THE TABLET | 3 March 2012 ing Catholic schools or hospitals. This is something I hope will change.”

“Vietnamese society is breaking down,” says Salesian Fr Vincent Ngoc Dong, secretary general of Caritas Vietnam and president of Caritas Saigon. He attributes this to decades of state-mandated atheism coupled with the effects of economic liberalisation. “Corruption, prostitution, materialism are rampant. The youth just try to get as rich as possible no matter what, without caring for the future or for the others,” he says.

This is where the Catholic Church could help a lot, insists Bishop Kham, but the Government remains suspicious. “One retired prime minister told me that he knows that among Catholics there is much less corruption and bribery than in the rest of society,” the bishop said.

The Communist Party is keenly aware of the potential dangers of those “social evils” – as they are called in the official parlance – as well as of the risks posed to its power by growing poverty, income inequality and internal migration. For example, says Fr Joseph Dinh Duc Huynh of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, “In Ho Chi Minh City alone, there are two million migrants coming from the rest of the country, often unregistered, living in very poor conditions, often completely forgotten by the state.”

But the regime is afraid of giving up power in key areas such as education and health care. “The Government”, says Fr Ngoc Dong, “is afraid of losing influence among the youth. They only let us do what it cannot or doesn’t want to do.” But until this happens, he adds, “ours won’t be real freedom. We are still in a cage, just a larger one.”

Such is the case with Fr Toai’s centre for HIV patients. For years, he says, local authorities have tried to ignore the problem of HIV/Aids, fuelled as it is by a dramatic growth in prostitution and drug use, or to fight it by moving away people with HIV/Aids to government-run centres away from the city. Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work. “All the while,” he adds, “mistrust and intolerance were growing, so much so that some people with HIV were refused treatment in state hospitals.” When he started his centre offering free care and guidance, the stigma against patients was so strong he had to mask its entrance inside an inner court. Now it treats 2,000 patients a week and, since 2007, is one of the very few Catholic health-care structures to have received official government recognition.

According to Bishop Kham, this and other similar examples of Catholic social activity could show the way forward for the Church in Vietnam. “Personally, I think the Communist Government should open the door to religions,” he asserts. “This could be very important for the future of the country, to make it more human, more equal, and – what matters a lot to the Party – more stable.”

(See The Church in the World, page 28.)

■ Alessandro Speciale is a freelance journalist.


‘Marriage is the ideal. But that ref lects the triumph of optimism over experience’

An outsider looking in is often particularly perceptive. We British might fret about the state of the nation, but, according to Nicolas Sarkozy of France, we’re an enviable lot. Last week he commented on how we manage to mix past and present in our culture, enabling history and tradition to mingle with contemporary argument and taste.

President Sarkozy was with David Cameron at the time, and it’s a pretty exact description of the Conservative Prime Minister: a politician who stands for traditional values but with a streak of libertarian thinking on personal morality, leading him to support marriage for gays and lesbians. The Coalition’s Equalities Minister, the Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone, has been frank in her comments about gay marriage, saying that it’s the Government’s fundamental job to shape society, reflect the future and change things for the better.

At the moment Ms Featherstone and her colleagues are saying that they are not going to change marriage in church but there’s a suspicion in certain circles that this could be the next step. If that were the case, the Catholic Church’s tussles with government on adoption by same-sex couples, or on religious education would be but soft breezes riffling the surface of the sea, compared to the hurricane that would ensue. Many gay Catholics admit that the Church will not change its mind, simply because it can’t. It would have to rethink wholesale its teaching on sex, and it’s not going to risk having the whole edifice come crumbling down. What has struck me in the last few days, carrying out an admittedly unscientific straw poll of liberal Catholics – the kind of people you would expect to at least wonder about possible change – is that they are instinctively uneasy about redefining marriage.

There’s the “newspeak” aspect of the change: do we want government to go about Orwellian rearranging of language when it suits them? And there’s the fundamental belief that marriage is at heart about the creating and raising of children and the complementarity of male and female. In other words, they believe in their gut that the Church is right. Marriage should be left as it is.

But that leaves the gay friends of those very same liberal Catholics out in the cold – the kind of people summed up by Sarah Waters’ novel, The Night Watch, when Helen thinks of her beloved: “What could she do to say to the world that Julia was hers? What did she have to do to keep Julia faithful? She had only herself.” Waters’ novel is set in 1947 and more than 60 years later, Helens and Julias have civil partnerships as a way of expressing their commitment and offering them certain rights. The English and Welsh Catholic bishops appear to have changed from opposing civil partnerships to what it now calls “living with the legal reality of it” – not their usual expression of protest on moral issues. But they are still maintaining that marriage, rather than civil partnership, is a step too far. Marriage remains the ideal.

But that’s a response reflecting the triumph of optimism over experience. The Government’s well-being survey shows marriage brings the greatest fulfilment. But the divorce rate in Britain is rising again. For every two couples that marry each year, one splits up. The main reasons cited are unreasonable behaviour, separation, and adultery. That’s an extraordinary amount of unhappiness wrought not only upon the children of broken homes by their parents, but on one another too. For all the talk of stability that marriage is supposed to bring to society, the cavalier approach to their vows by some husbands and wives suggests it often fails to rein in what we might term the “rutting chimpanzee” tendency of human beings.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s current BBC Radio 4 series on divorce highlights the terrible toll it is taking. However much one might support the need for civil courts to enable, say, the wife of a violent alcoholic to leave her husband, Alibhai-Brown argues that something has gone wrong when so many divorces happen so easily, creating perhaps far more unhappiness than those involved would have imagined possible, and indeed, far more than struggling on.

But this has become as much part of marriage today as the creation of a domestic unit and the raising of children. If that is the case, and gay marriage is made legal, mimicking contemporary heterosexual unions, then gays and lesbians should be warned. With gay marriage you risk gay adultery, gay unreasonable behaviour, gay custody rows and gay heartache.

3 March 2012 | THE TABLET | 5