When I was a Maryknoll seminarian in the 1950s, we all had to read a biography of Blessed (now Saint) Theophane Venard, a priest of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) who was martyred in Tonkin, now a part of present-day Vietnam, in 1861. Published as Modern Martyr, the story had been written by James A. Walsh, the founder of Maryknoll, and was presented as an inspiration for the mission of Maryknoll in particular and the American Catholic mission to Asia in general. Maryknoll’s minor seminary in Pennsylvania was even named the Venard. Father Venard was a saintly member of the French national foreign missionary society who along with many others had given his life to evangelize the people of Indochina and whose blood was the seed of apostolic success that had made 10 percent of the modern Vietnamese population faithful Catholics.
But the Communist rulers of Vietnam today propagate a different story: missionaries like Venard were agents of French imperialism that sparked a spirit of nationalism among the Vietnamese and eventually led to the revolution and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, itself blessed with the blood of martyrs who braved French artillery and bombs from American B-52’s to establish an independent nation.
Both stories—the Maryknoll and the Communist—were sacred simplifications, myths, that have too often energized ideological polarization rather than ecumenical engagement. Especially with the end of the cold war, it is becoming more possible to write histories that capture the multidimensional ambiguities of Asian Catholicism, and it is high time for theologians of Catholic mission activity to read them.
Charles Keith’s exhaustively researched book, Catholic Vietnam, is a splendid contribution to such a history. His narrative extends through the 19th century to 1965, when Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, became the first president of the Republic of Vietnam in southern Vietnam, an event that occasioned a vast exodus of Catholics toward the south from the Communist led Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north. The main actors over this span of time were indigenous Catholic communities, foreign missionaries, ecclesiastical hierarchies and French colonial officials.
The church as presented here was not a unified entity. There were many kinds of Catholic communities, shaped by different social contexts. In the 19th century, Catholics living in the northern territory of Tonkin and in the northern part of the middle region of Annam lived mostly in all-Catholic villages, and the local church was deeply entwined with community affairs, both political and economic as well as religious. Disputes over property and political influence could incite communal struggles between Catholic and non-Catholic communities. In southern Annam and Cochinchina, Catholics were more dispersed, and priests carried less political power and had to cooperate to a greater degree with non-Catholics. This led to different historical patterns of religious violence and indeed to different forms of Catholic spirituality. There were also differences between areas evangelized by French missionaries and by Spanish Dominicans.
The conflicts were intensified after the 1820s by the efforts of Nguyen dynasty emperors to consolidate their rule in ways that infringed on the autonomy of Catholic communities. The increasing French incursion into Indochina led to attacks on Catholics as potentially subversive. In fact, however, many Vietnamese Catholics did not support French imperialism. Although some Catholics directly supported the French colonial regimes, others advised the Nguyen rulers on how to modernize in such a way as to resist French power. Along with other residents of Vietnam, many Catholics deeply resented French control.
The resentment continued even after the 1890s, when the French had consolidated their power and put an end to most antireligious violence. Catholic Vietnam opens with the dramatic story of the arrest and trial of three Vietnamese priests in 1909 who had led a movement to overthrow French colonial rule. The French missionaries, for their part, were at odds with French political emissaries, who represented the secularist Third Republic. But many local Catholics, including members of the clergy, resented not only French colonial agents but French missionary priests as well, because the missionaries were intent on keeping the church in Vietnam under French ecclesiastical control.
That control began to be wrested away by the Vatican after World War I. Pope Benedict XV’s encyclical “Maximum Illud” reasserted Vatican control over mission territories that had been governed under a French protectorate and paved the way for the ordination of local bishops. The first Vietnamese bishop, Jean-Baptiste Nguyen Ba Tong, was ordained in 1933 despite vigorous resistance from French colonial officials and French missionaries. A Vietnamese national church was born.
A national church both reflected and helped further political nationalistic sentiments in Vietnam. The Catholic Church supported a lively Catholic press, which reached people throughout Vietnam. Intentionally or not, this fostered a sense of national identity that transcended the local identities of Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina. To the consternation of both French colonialists and French missionaries, prominent Vietnamese Catholic intellectuals contributed to nationalist movements. In line with Catholic social teachings of the 1930s, they also advocated structural transformations to promote social justice. This leftist agenda, however, did not extend to Communism, which Pope Pius XI condemned in his 1937 encyclical “Divine Redemptoris.”
When a Democratic Republic of Vietnam was established after World War II, many Catholics at all levels actively participated, although they had strained relationships with Communist leaders like Ho Chi Minh. Nonetheless, when the French returned to Vietnam and tried to reassert colonial control, Catholics joined the resistance and fought for independence. They sought a non-Communist alternative to national independence, but some key leaders gave sufficient support to the revolution that when the Communists did triumph they did not attempt to create an official state church independent from Rome as the Communists did in China.
Although the relationship of Catholics to Communists was relatively fluid in the late 1940s, it hardened into a deep polarization by 1950 with the advent of the cold war and Pius XII’s resolutely anti-Communist stance. The mistrust of Catholics and the D.R.V. was strong enough to lead to the 1965 exodus of Catholics to South Vietnam. The northern Catholics did not mingle well with southern Catholics because of differences in regional religious cultures, but under American tutelage they were increasingly united in the global struggle of the “free world” against “godless Communism.”
This story is told in so much detail that it can be hard to follow for someone unfamiliar with Vietnam’s history. The detail is important, however, to help scholars of modern Catholic missionary history disentangle the intertwined strands of faith and power in the transmission of Catholicism to Asia. The Vietnamese Catholic church comes across fairly well in this account. Though pulled in different directions, manipulated by both foreign and domestic powers and suffering more than its share of tragedies, it bravely contributed in the end to the tortuous building of a Vietnamese nation.