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