The present situation in Vietnam evokes an impression of gradual openness and seemingly if full of hope. Since the proclamation of "Doi Moi" in 1988 the government has tried to break the political ghetto, to engage in international affairs and to move this underdeveloped and totally state-controlled country towards free-market socialism. Seemingly the government has decide to initiate a brand new period in Vietnam history. However, any sort of oversimplification should be avoided. The situation at present involves so many non-synchronized developments that a superficial assessment can be highly deceptive. While the economic sector rushes forward with dreams of becoming another "tiger" in Asia, the political sector is carefully kept under the strictures of "order and security" and the department of religious affairs remain very conservative. Altogether, the present evolution is better described as a multilevelled antithesis than as a synthesis of opposite view ("Aufhebung").
Many people think that State-Church relations in Vietnam seem to be similar to those in mainland China. In fact, both regimes consider themselves to be communist States, following Marxist-Leninist materialism in their own context. In this respect, they adopt the same policy on religion: the antagonistic relation between the State and religious institutions remain based on the Western opposition between atheism and theism. What is new in the Asian context is the identification of Christianity as a foreign ideology, rather than as a type of human alienation. This superficial judgment is however, inaccurate in many ways. As we will explain, the communist regime of Vietnam cannot succeed in defining the Catholic church within the category of "foreign" entity. The Church has deep roots in Vietnamese history as well as in the national culture, a culture now in need of reconstruction. We will also demonstrate that many of the regime's anti-Church stances have their roots in the original (Western) context and show how the relation between Marsicm and Christianity has developed. Such complicated and multifold reconstructions will help us to understand better the emerging relationship between State and Church in Vietnam. At this important moment of their history the Vietnamese people can cooperate with others, even their enemies, and find the ways towards new forms of synthesis.
The challenging relation between various partners in Vietnam and, at the same time, the serious willingness, after long and cruel wars, to cooperate on the part of all those who are concerned with their land, their people and their common future, can be understood better in the light of history and cultural developments. In this quest, one begins by putting together mere fragments because Vietnam has lost many of its historical written documents. What we have at hand are not the most ancient ones, and we have to deal with documents scattered around the world outside Vietnam. These can be found in the historical books written in Chinese context or in the libraries in Paris, Rome or Tokyo. Fortunately, the finds of archeology constitute another source of information on the history and culture of Vietnam.
In the 1930s-1950s, French archaeologists discovered many sites of the ancient civilization. They testify that since megalithic times the original inhabitants lived in Lang Son, Yen Bai, Hoa Binh, Bac Son, Vi Son. The most significant findings have proved that a high civilization existed in the Borze Age with finely decorated drums, instruments for religious cults. In these decorations (many human figures costumed like birds, dancing around a big star, the Sun-god) we can recognize the old myth about the origin of the Viet tribe who identified themselves with the birds (they were born out of a hundred of eggs). These findings are important for our understanding of the Vietnamese collective consciousness and also the powerful unconsciousness which, laying beneath the surface through the history of Vietnam, rises to the surface at different periods to reassert the unique identity of the Vietnamese people, as collective sense of belonging, especially in times of serious oppression. These psychological factors had well served in Vietnamese history, allowing many flexible syntheses, even allowing Vietnam to benefit from some hostile elements coming from foreign cultures. Such phenomena are well attested to in the course of Vietnamese history.
Vietnamese culture is characterized by to fight for survival with a readiness for cooperation. This culture-process can be divided in three periods. The first one was dominated by the long struggle with Chinese "colonialism" and its culture, and resulted in the Viet-Han culture. The second period was characterized by the achievement of independence and the encounter with Buddhism and Christianity, which were absorbed as new elements of Viet-Han culture. The third period was marked by dramatic long wards and partitions, a testing ground for re-integration among antagonistic parties, eager to bring happiness and hope to the country and its people. Indeed, there are many possible approaches to illustrate how the collective subject of Vietnamese culture has manifested itself in history. A simple and powerful one is to formation of the Vietnamese language. No need to emphasize the important role, which language plays in any culture and in the life of a nation.
According to semiotics, language comprises three elements: sign (script, vocal expression); rules (grammar) and performance (practice). The Vietnamese language as it is functioning today throughout the country, shows a remarkable coordination of these three elements. If we pay attention to the "sign", we would wonder what kind of script the Vietnamese language had used before it acquired the Latin alphabet. According to archaeologists, the civilization of Bronze Age in Vietnam (about Fourth Century BC) was developed by people who lived from agriculture, fishery and hunting. Presumably, such a society had a language, a sort of ancient Vietnamese. In the decorations of the drums there were fine designs and symbols, but no linguistic sings. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to think that their language was only oral as in many primitive societies. The first forms of writing seem to have been Chinese characters which came to Vietnam with the Trieu dynasty (202-111 BC). Trieu Da, who was from China, invaded Au Lac (old name of Vietnam) and made it a part of the Treiu territory. The Trieu dynasty assigned, however, the government of the occupied land to the local aristocrats who had to make regular reports. In general, Vietnamese aristocracy always played an important role in society. That is the reason why the Viet-Culture adopted the Chinese script. After the fall of the Trieu dynasty into the hands of the Western Han dynasty, Vietnam became a colony of China for 1,050 years. During this long period (`111 BC - 939 AD) Vietnam learned how to cooperate with its powerful enemy in order to co-exist or at times, simply to survive. There erupted many revolutions, especially when the Chinese mandarins cruelly oppressed the people. During this period Chinese culture dominated the bureaucracy while at the same time the popular Vietnamese culture serviced among the people. Both forms gradually mixed together to create a new so-called Viet-Han culture. Many historians agree that Vietnam had learned to forms its identity in the hard, but very effective school of the long domination by China. With this precious tradition, the Viet-Han culture managed to overcome many difficulties and easily absorbed other religions and ideologies in later periods.
Once independent, Vietnam continued using Chinese characters (administration, examinations) but felt the need to create a new form of writing to express spoken Vietnamese. The so-called Nom writing appeared as a combination of Chinese characters and signs of pronunciation. It was much more complicated than Chinese but could be used to write down the popular language. Given its complexity, this was a paradoxical solution. In reality, only those who could write Chinese were able to learn the Nom writings. Be that as it may, Non writing did leave behind many important historical documents and famous literary works which try to express erudite through in a popular way and achieved a considerable integrated worldview. In this process, Buddhism, which came to Vietnam directly from the south (the Indian culture circle like Chiem Thanh, Chan Lap, Lam Ap) as well as indirectly through Chinese transformation, played an important role side by side with Confucianism in the life of the Vietnamese. Vietnam, like many other Asian countries, faced a vehement culture-shock, when they met Western culture in the sixteenth century, yet at the same time showed an amazing flexibility vis-a-vis totally foreign cultures. The four-century-long encounter with the West followed a very complicated course in Vietnam history: a mixture of friendship and hostility. Here Vietnam proved again its ability to deal with enemies and friends and not only to coexit, but also to accept the good elements of foreign cultures and to integrate them into its own culture. The most important result was the new way of writing Vietnamese, using the Roman alphabet, replacing the Chinese characters for writing Nom. This proved to be a successful cooperation between Vietnamese and Eastern cultures. Alexandre de Rhodes, one of the first missionaries, continued the efforts to transcribe spoken Vietnamese using Latin letters. The project was hard and toilsome. After a long process of correction over many generations, the spoken language, with its six tones, could be perfectly rendered in writing. The Vietnamese language in both Chinese and Nom characters could be transcribed in an easily accessible script using only 24 Latin letters and thus helped almost all the population to overcome illiteracy in a very short time. This bi-cultural invention circulated first only within the Church; later on it was used by the first Vietnamese writers and by newspapers. It was "officially" recognized at the beginning of the twentieth century. This way, Christianity (meaning the Catholic church) was strongly part of it, just like Confucianism or Buddhism. Although the Vietnamese church was harshly persecuted by kings for a long time, the fact that she reciprocated hatred with love, proved her persevering concern for the country. Indeed, some authors have made the Catholic church responsible for the substantial realities of the church. Besides, if they want to confine their research to the political issues, they should not ignore those Vietnamese Catholics like Nguyen Truong To, Truong Vinh Ky, Ho Dinh Hy, Ngo Dinh Kha. who served national interests which were not necessarily identified with the kings. Although the Vietnamese church, together with other Asian churches, was affected by the "rites controversy," the process of inculturation went quite smoothly and has already reached the deeper levels of Vietnamese life. Despite all of this, we face a strange phenomenon in present-day Vietnam: the church and other religious institutions, as parts of Vietnamese culture, feel that they are not "free" to help in the reconstruction of the country. Why does the government adopt an antagonistic attitude towards religions? In other words, what was the relationship between Marxism and religion in its original instance? What does it look like in Western culture of today?
The antithetical worldview between Marxim and religion arose originally in the Western context of the nineteenth century, before it was embodied in the communist regimes. It is necessary to find out the theoretical roots of their confrontation, before one can understand a government, which affirms that its policy is based on the "the guidance of Marxima-Leninism," functions under the "dictatorship of the proletariat" and follows the ideology of "atheist materialism," as does the communist regime in Vietnam.
K. Marx in his whole life defended humanism from different points of view and in various stages. His humanistic concerns concentrated, however, on the critique of "alienations." Marx held that both the alienation of false consciousness and of injustice had two main roots: religion and capitalism. In his early period, Marx directed his fiercest critique at religion, because, like other Left-Hegelians, he was convinced that the critique of religion in Germany was the "presupposition" of all other critiques. He followed L. Feuerbach who opposed Hegel's philosophy and judged Hegel's Christianity as a "spiritualism" which turned religion into "projection," into an unreal wishful world-view. On the contrary, Feuerabach considered that the substance of religion is anthropological atheism: "homo homini deus." Although Marx appreciated the critique of Feuerbach on Christianity, he went a step further with B. Bauer, a political polemicist and M. Hess, a communist rabbi, to give Feuerbach's atheism a political and practical dimension. Marx blamed Feuerbach for falling back into individual "mysticism": "Feuerbach does not see that the 'religious sentiment' is itself a social product and that the abstract individual whom he analyzes belongs in reality to a particular form of society." B. Bauer, the head of the "Doctorclub" in Berlin held that Hegel's religion itself was a "hidden atheism," for it is the production of philosophy, of the consciousness. In politics, Bauer pleaded for the total separation of politics from religion. He was convinced that unless religion ceased to be protected by political authority, atheism could not enjoy freedom. Marx, and the communists in general, shared with Bauer this conviction. They renamed their tactics, "privatization of religion," and considered it as an important step towards the destruction of religion. Later on Marx felt that Bauer's critique of religion was, in fact, only an apologia for secular Judaism, and asked: what is the basis of secular Judaism? The answer, which Marx found, was "Hucksterning and money." He continued: "Very well then, emancipation from hucksterning and money, consequently from practical, real Judaism, would be the self-emancipation of our time." He concluded that Bauer remained, indeed, a "theology ex professor." In short, although the Left-Hegelians helped Marx to reach atheism, they did not overcome the standpoint of "civil society." They were, therefore, not unlike various philosophers or theologians who interpreted the world in different ways; the point is not only to interpret but to change the world. Here Marx followed M. Hess, the communist rabbi, and moved into the new materialist communism: humanism means socializing humanity.
In 1848 Marx's "Manifesto of Communism" marked a new turning point: from a philosophical critique to proclamation of a revolution against capitalism. Marx declared that the anti-humanism of capitalism lies in its exploiting the workers and using the productions to oppress them. In such a way the products are not only alienated from the workers, they are also misused for the continuance of the "social status quo" through the ideological alliances functioning in the "superstructure'. Among these ideologies, religion played the most important role. Therefore, the revolution against the capitalism implied overthrowing religion. This is the logical consequence of the theory of the static economic-social "basic-super-structure". But what then, when the static conception becomes dynamic? When communism does not stand in an antagoinist relationship with capitalism? These questions, which we face in the end of the twentieth century, could not be imagined by Marx! But, they are not irrelevant for us.
Following the revolution of October 1917 W.I. Lenin formed the first communist regime and published Marxism in the Russian context. Lenin was not only a revolutionary but also a philosopher and a political tactician. Dealing with religion, he proclaimed, first, "privatization of religion" and second, "freedom of conscience." He interpreted this declaration in a double perspective: for the state, religion becomes a private affair; for the communist party, however, religion is not a (neutral) private affair, but "opium for the people" (not opium of the people, as Marx had called it). Therefore religion, whether private or not, remains an object that the communist party opposes. Respecting "freedom of conscience" religion is not allowed to "force" any person. In reality, any religious education or pastoral care were considered as illegal activities and were strongly forbidden. A further step was to separate people, especially the youth: that is, the "bad" (who are religious) are separated from the "good" (who are communist), and the religious are ridiculed foolish, whereas the communist are praised as "progressive" This basic tactic became a model for all communist countries. There were, however, some later modifications, e.g. in communist China, where most of the religions were not strongly organized or where the well organized religions represented only a small minority, the government did not need to "oppose" them -- rather it "helped" them to reorganize. In doing so, religious institutions become de facto instruments of state policy. Before we describe the way in which the Vietnamese communists deal with the Christianity, in Vietnam this means almost exclusively the Catholic Church, it is necessary to know how the church itself understands state-church relations, and how she has reactive against communist policy.
Although we do not find a direct teaching about the relationship between church and state in the New Testament, we do find some general direction in passages like Mk. 12:13-17, which can be summarized as: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's to God the things that are God's." Although Jesus lived in a situation that was full of social and political manipulation, and though his position is in the danger of being misunderstood, he submitted to legitimate authority no matter what the external pressure. His unique criteria was obedience to the Will of the Father. Therefore, to lead a "holy war" in the name of God's kingdom is always a serious misinterpretation of the teaching of Jesus. For Christianity, the state is not something absolute, but only a provisional political necessity. Consequently, Christians can accept any state, as long as God allow it to exist and as long as it fulfills its duties to develop humanity and benefit the common good. In the case in which a s state oversteps its limitation and demands what is absolute, i.e. what belongs to God, the Christian has to show his critical loyalty, even through the radical witness of martyrdom. In short Christianity according to the basic spirit of the New Testament is obligated to advocate neither a total identification of the church with the state, nor a theoretical antagonism or total separation -- rather it encourages an adequate cooperation, as far as possible.
In the history of Christianity the efforts to achieve an adequate cooperation between church and state have not always been successful. This cooperation involves a learning process and many adjustments. In the early church, Christianity followed the spirit of the gospel in maintaining loyalty to the state, even during the harshest persecutions: love and prayer for persecutors being its primary response to a hostile state. This early experience has become a model for Christianity in difficult situations, revealing both the best way of giving witness and a powerful manner of evangelization. After the Roman emperors became Christian, the relationship shifted into a new paradigm which needed a new theoretical support. Augustine, reflecting on Plato's philosophy, suggested that this relationship could be compared as "civitas Dei" and "civitas terrena." He pleaded for a harmony which would provide the ground for peace and justice. Following Aristotle's philosophy, Thomas Aquinas considered "natural laws" as the basis of their relationship. In this conception, the state as "potestas indirecta in temporalibus" is subordinated to the church as "potestas eterna". Accordingly, state and church are different, but interlocked in a transcendent structure.
In practice, this conception of a hierarchical order became an arena of continually shifting and overlapping power in the Middle Ages. Since the Enlightenment, this tension between Church and State has become a hostile confrontation, especially after the French Revolution. Pope Leo XIII, expressing his special concern for social problems, called on the states to reestablsih the stability and security of society. He promoted "Neo-Thomism" and exhorted states to protect "natural rights" (like property, family and freedom) as the ground for peace and order. While Pope Leo XIII dealt with anarchy and nihilism, Popes Pious XI and XII struggled with the most terrifying time in human history: two World-Wars and their cruel consequences. The essential problem was the right to life, which is the basis of all other rights. In this context the two popes condemned strongly persecutions in countries like Mexico, Spain and Russia. Responding to communism, Pope Pius XI emphasized that its false idea of salvation had its source in false ideals of justice, equality and brotherhood. The masses were fascinated by these mystifying promises and joined in the revolution. Once the communists gained power, the individual became ipso facto a mechanical instrument for economic production. He concluded: communism is evil in its most inner core and it is not permitted to collaborate with it in any way, if someone wants to rescue Christian culture. Like his predecessor, Pope Pious XII forbade not only collaboration, but even any contact with communism in the decree of July 1, 1949. In this way, the antagonism between church and state reached its highest point.
In the time of Vatican Council II, the Catholic Church found a new approach to atheism, and to communism in particular. In his first Encyclical, "Pacem in Teris" Pope John XXIII elevated the important role of "person," with its self-consciousness and responsibility, as the most radical basic for renewal. Living in the same world, Christians share with other persons responsibilities for humanity and its future. They are all our "neighbors" whom we love, even if they are atheists or enemies. The pope made the critically important distinction between "error and the errant": "A man who has fallen into error does not cease to be a man. He never forfeits his personal dignity; and that is something that must always be taken into account. Beside, there exists in man's very nature an undying capacity to break through the barriers of error and seek the road to truth." Similarly, it is important to distinguish between a false philosophy and the projects drawn from its inspiration; for these undertaking cannot avoid being influenced, to a certain extent by the changing conditions in which they have to operate. The pope suggested that we think positively of works of atheism: "Besides, who can deny that possible existence of good and commendable elements in these undertakings?" The spirit of John XXIII influenced Vatican II and was continued by his successors. Pope Paul VI emphasized "self-renewal" of the church, of which the very first step is: "correction of own mistakes" as a precondition for dialogue with others. The church reflected on herself about the question of atheism and acknowledged that believers themselves often shared some responsibilities for the rise of atheism; for "atheism springs from various causes, among which must be included a critical reaction against religion and, in some places, against the Christian religion in particular." Still, the church's teaching continues to express the conviction that the "basic propositions of atheism are utterly false and irreconcilable with the underlying principles of thought. They strike at the genuine and effective foundation for man's acceptance of a rational order in the universe, and introduce into human life a a futile kind of dogmatism which far from solving life's difficulties, only degrades it and sadden it. Any social system based on these principles is doomed to utter destruction. Atheism, therefor, is not a liberating force, but a catastrophic one, for it seeks to quench the light of the living God." Pope Paul VI indicated the reason why his processors had condemned communism: the communist party is identified with an atheist regime and uses its power to oppress the church and religious belief. Therefore, he asked: "Yet is it really so much we who condemn them?" His answer is: "Truth to tell, the voice we raise against them is more the complaint of a victim than the sentence of a judge."
In the light of Vatican II, the Catholic Church tries to follow "the signs of times" to discover its authentic meaning, and to adopt an adequate attitude and way "to love the world" -- especially on the level o the local church.
The relationship between State and Church with which we are concerned here began, when Ho Chi Minh was empowered by the king Bao Dai to head a coalition government after the Japanese surrendered to end World War II. The first cabinet of this coalition government was multicolored, composed of all important parties regardless of their ideologies. Among the ministers there were also some Catholic politicians, such as Nguyen Manh Ha, Ngo Tu Ha. Every Vietnamese was enthusiastic about independence and union. In September 1945 the first four Vietnamese bishops sent a message to Rome asking the Holy See to support and bless the independence of Vietnam. Afterwards they sent other telegrams to all powerful countries, especially the USA and England, asking them to promote a policy of independence and to meet the just requests of the Vietnamese people. In fact the USA played the important role in the support of Ngo Dinh Dien some years later. In October 1945 another Vietnamese, the about Le Huu Tu, was elected as new bishop of Phat Diem. It can be understood as a concrete blessing of the Holy See to the Vietnamese church. Many important politicians were present to celebrate the consecration of the new bishop, among whom there were Pham Van Dong, Vo Nguyen Giap and Vinh Thuy (formerly king Bao Dai). The new bishop was asked by president Ho to be his counselor. One of the most successful actions for promotion of union was the so-called "week of gold," a movement for the collection of precious metal which would be used to rebuild the country. One unforgettable gesture symbolized the attitude of the Catholic Church toward the country: Bishop Ho Ngoc Can offered his pectoral golden cross for building up of the country. The atmosphere of enthusiasm for independence, freedom and unification was thus confirmed and every Vietnamese group was ready to contribute their efforts to offer their own sacrifice to rebuild the Fatherland. The situation was overshadowed soon, however, because of the return of French colonialism on the one hand and the gradual collapse of cooperation on the other hand. this collapse was caused by a failure of mutual understanding; this failure of understanding was itself due to the lack of a theoretical basis that could provide for a solid integration of all political parties and of various worldviews. Ho Chi Minh, the president of the government, who was at the same time the chief of Communist Party, attempted to negotiate with the French authority in such a secret way, that other political parties, like Quoc Minh Dang suspected him of being a "traitor." Ho consolidated his power through the well organized communist party. But once violence became the means of resolving conflicts especially ideological conflicts, nobody could guarantee the orientation of development, and every group tried to protect itself. That was the cause of war between the communist regime and the French and was the starting-point of the so-called self-protection-zones, like the Catholic one in Phat Dien, Bui Chu. According to the Catholic tradition, a cleric is not allowed to participate in politics, he can only provide Catholic politicians with the right orientation. Faced the terror of communism against other nationalist parties and with the assassination of Catholics, followed by the declaration of the Pope Pius XII on July 1, 1949, the bishops in Vietnam issued their pastoral letter of November 9, 1951 in which they referred to communism as the "denial of the rights of the human person and the family." They echoed the voice of the Pope: there was a complete opposition between the Catholic church and communism and therefore it was impossible to be both Communist and Catholic; hence, every Catholic who becomes a member of the Communist Party is opso facto separated from the church. "Not only are you forbidden to be a member of the Communist Party, you may not cooperate with it or doing anything that might in any way bring the communists to power." In such a situation many Catholics could hardly do anything more than resist peacefully by escaping to the South Vietnam, especially, after the Conference of Geneva 1954, which divided Vietnman in two parts: the North belonged to the Communist regime and the South to a Non-communist government.
Among nearly one million refugees, 80 per cent were Catholics, including two bishops and hundreds to priest and sisters. They became a strong support for the anti-Communist regimes. The Catholic refugees were a powerful group, they clustered together under the guidance of pastors who were refugees like themselves and formed new villages with names recalling their origin in the North. They developed quite effective economic zones around Saigon or in the middle of virgin territory. After about 10 years they had achieved a middle class, or even upper class, standard of living. their quantitative as well as qualitative. With the government encouraging it to establish private schools, the Catholic church in South Vietnam which was schools with 258,409 Catholic and 97,347 non-Catholic children; 226 Middle schools with 82,827 Catholic and 70,101 non-Catholic pupils; two universities composed of faculties education, philosophy, literature, political economy, religious sisters who engaged mostly in nursing and the basic education mission: they served in 41 hospitals with 7,000 beds, 239 medical stations, 36 birthscare stations, 9 leprosariums with 2,500 lepers, 82 orphanages with 11,000 children and 29 old-aged houses. Following Vatican II, the Church in the South reformed herself and tired not only to inculturate, but at the same time readied herself to dialog with other relgions and ideologies. How could such a vital Church be confined to the private area? It was a difficult task for the Church, and for the Communist State as well, after 1975.
The relationship between the State and the Church after April 29, 1975 was partly a refined repetition of the general policy toward religions of a communist regime, partly new attitude emerging out of a challenging situation. The essential policy of the government was and remains the privatization of religion, which means, first, the control of religion through the isolation of religious organizations from any international contact and seems confining religious activities within the church. For the church in North Vietnam after 1954 which was already isolated and diminished through the exodus of thousands of Catholics to the South and which held firmly the western traditions of pre-Vatican II, the process of privatization was relative easy and successful, although the regime did not achieve the same level of submission of the church to the will of the state as in mainland China. In dealing with the Vietnamese church after 1975, the church with the spirit of Vatican Ii and with a favor for social involvement's, as we mentioned above, the communist regime acted very cautiously -- yet it acted firmly. First, the government thanked all missionaries and "suggested" they take "vacations" in their homelands -- they had worked so hard from Vietnam. If the missionaries did not want to do this, the authorities would "help" them to achieve the goal. Expulsion orders were never mentioned. Next, the local authorities "asked" church's leaders on all levels to collaborate with the regime by "offering" their "public institutions" like schools, hospitals, orphanages... If someone was not willing to do this, he or she would be lured in difficult situations, in the serious cases they could be trapped in illegal activities. For the sake of security, any assembly had to submit to the authorities and movements and travels between provinces, even villages, were strictly controlled. Since the intention was to restrict all religious activities, the church could only function within the frame of "spiritual matters" and in "private places." This happened, especially in the later 1970s and early 1980s, to different degrees in different places through Vietnam. The above is well know to be the general policy toward religion of communist regimes, who, using the strategy of Marxism-Leninism, attempt to destroy religion.
Fortunately there are other voices which had been arising out of the Vietnamese collective unconscious. These voices would awake both the state and the church, from different points of vies, to a renewed concern for the same country its future. Recently the Revue of Communist Party published the collection of the Ho Chi Minh's thoughs on religion -- a collection which had been kept in secret over four decades. One may wonder whether the timing of the publication has any particular intention or message? In any case, Ho interpreted religion as "the cultural heritage of humanity." He appreciate Confucius as former of individual morality, Jesus as teacher of charity and Marx as dialectician, and considered himself as "a humble student t of these great men." However, the author of the collection, Tran Duong, added: "Naturally, the fact that Ha affirms the sublime religious ideals does not mean that he (Ho) confused the materialism with spiritualism." For ho said once: "It is clear that materialism and spiritualism are contrary to each other." At the same time Ho also affirmed that they should not dispute; or fight each other. He was convinced that it is necessary to respect the freedom of belief and pleaded for the cooperation. "You know that I have no religion. As a communist, I adhere to Marxim-Leninism. I offered my life to fight for the independence of the country and the freedom of my compatriots. Nowadays the land is liberated from the colonialist yoke and the people enjoy freedom and independence. The Party, the government and myself work so that the population can be satisfied, well clothed, that our children can study, that sick persons can go medicines and be cared for in the hospitals, that the spiritual and material living standard will be stabilized and elevated, and to build a prosperous nation. You share all these anxieties; what is contrary to your religion, to the teachings of the Lord Jesus? Your faithful, our compatriots, they need also to be nourished, clothed, to study and be cared for; everybody desires the conditions of a peaceful and better life, a happy family... With regard to religion, to the recitation of prayers, the government allow you to be free under the condition of not doing anything illegal or creating an obstacle to the common good of the people and of the country."
The concern and anxiety which Ho expressed at the dawn of the independent Vietnam were overshadowed by long wars and fanatic ideology, and thus, postponed more than 30 years until the breakthrough of Doi Moi (perestroika), which was initiated by Nguyen Van Linh. This pragmatic turning point initiates at least two difficulties: how to transform a rigid communism into a new socialism and how to elevate one of the "poorest" countries in Asia to a prosperous one. Lacking both an adequate intellectual and technical preparation, institutional and legislative organizations are experiencing great difficulties in coping with the new reality... The World Bank observes: "The Vietnamese economy is still characterized by both 'too little government' and 'too much government, too much unnecessary and inefficient regulation or interference'". No wonder that the regime and the Party itself feel unsatisfied, even the architect of the reforms, the former party chief, complained bitterly: "... the evil of bureaucrats, corruption and bribery... have reached a serious level without any sign of abating," and he warned that "not a small number of people, including leading cadres,... misappropriate public funds, accept bribes and seek personal gain in an illegal manner, thus wasting the state budget and public funds." The party Central Committee met at its fourth plenum in January 1993 to discuss the problems facing health, education, the arts and the country's youth. They estimate that "70 per cent of the 3.5 million urban jobless and the majority of the 5 million unemployed in the countryside are young people." The reports on the health showed that many diseases which had been wiped out years ago were now recurring and that many people could no longer afford to buy medicines since the state subsidies had been suspended. Concerning education, the reports indicated a "downward trend" : illiteracy and the number of people leaving primary schools are increasing sharply. Facing the sharp resurgence of vice, the party chief Do Muoi called on the party to "resolutely fight against all trends in culture and arts." Could the party alone drag this heavy burden on the cooperation of all people and each can attribute his own talents to carry on the reform? "Without a national consensus, there will be no stability. And without stability, there can be no long-term economic growth." Ho Chi Minh himself, in a letter sent to the leaders to the faithful in the North, emphasized the two inseparable duties of the Catholic Church: revere the church: vox populi vox Dei and called on the church's leaders: "I wish you all the bishop's and the priests, to encourage your faithful to entrust themselves to the task of serving the country and the people.
The Church in Vietnam declared her willing cooperation after the unification of the country in 1975. Her intention has not been reversed even after many years of hard tests; but is demonstrated even more clearly in the lastest pastoral letters of the Vietnamese Bishop's Conference and in their letters sent to the Seventh Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party. In the pastoral letter issued after their meeting at Hanoi 1992, the Catholic Bishops of Vietnam called on Catholics to "Be Christians Worthy of Name." They expressed first of all "Joy and Hope" : joy, because "with the rest of humanity, our people are also striving to make progress" in thinking and in transforming the economy and in establishing commercial and cultural ties with other countries; hope, because the changes in political life have inspired greater confidence among the people and new directions that will offer many the opportunity to develop and contribute their particular skills. They then offered the results of their analysis and evaluation of the actual state of society and of the Church. They mentioned various "good elements" (like readiness to learn, an enthusiastic attitude toward the future, lively witness of Christians in the daily life, unification of the church... which are worthy to be praised; but they also listed "anxieties" for "personal reflection" (like family planning, seduction of a hedonistic attitude and lifestyle, lack of pastors, suffering from discrimination...) Next, they called special attention to the causes of the troubling insufficiencies in society: Concerning manpower they plead for a strong unity between competence and virtue: "A capable person without virtue can become dishonest. A virtuous person without competence will not obtain the expected results." The Bishops stressed the need for idealistic and heroic persons who, living in hope, are able to offer themselves for the country and for humanity as well; and they presented the Vietnamese martyr saints, who followed the teachings of Jesus Christ in difficult situations, as models for the Vietnamese Church as it undergoes moral reform and helps to restore the spiritual values which constitute the "soul of Vietnam." The soul of Vietnam manifests itself in the behavior of individuals, of families and of society, a behavior characterized by a sense of decency, filial piety, a fraternal spirit, modesty, respect for duty and a contempt for riches." The Bishops said the, if the Catholics in Vietnam want to cooperate with other countrymen and women, they have to be "Christians" worthy of the name, which means living out of the hope of the Gospel and bring happiness into human life. In concert, the Bishops mentioned such topics as inculturation, reinforcing family life, respect for life, family education, education in school, concern for the youth, care for the poor. Grounded on the love of Christ and of humanity, the Bishops affirmed the continuation of inculturation; for :from the very beginning, our ancestors knew how to use what is best in the treasure of our national culture to express their faith and their relationship with the Lord." The happiness of human life has its source in the family and is continued in school. Concern for youth requires care of the "future of our country" who are also "the hope of the church," therefore the Bishops urged both families and the parishes "to help young people become adults capable of assuming the responsibilities to be entrusted to them." Very much aware of the existence of the poor who represents an important part of the population, the bishops emphasized: "The struggle to eliminate poverty and raise the standard of living in both an evangelical duty and a very urgent demand." They used some popular expressions which everyone knows by heart from childhood, to whisper to the Soul of Vietnamese: "The undamaged leaf covers the torn leaf'; or "A mouthful given to someone who is starving is worth a bag of food offered to someone who is well-fed". In the end, the Bishops spoke to every member in the church -- laity, men and women religious and priests -- and entrusted to them the mission of the church. Finally, they concluded: "When she (the church) commits herself to the building up of secular society, she does not rely on power; nor does she seek to obtain power." This cooperation means sole "with Christ and like him, to become servants of God and humanity."
On the eve of the Seventh Congress of the Vietnam Communist Party meeting in July 1991, the president and the secretary of the Vietnamese Bishops' conference signed a public letter expressing their concern for building up the country the their hope for genuine religious freedom. The Bishops emphasized the priority of taking the whole person as the goal of development and acknowledged that socialism has proposed a number of high ideals, like to put an end to exploitation, the establishment of social justice, happiness for people. They then stated: if these noble ideals are to be achieved, there must be appropriate structures; for example, they suggest democracy as the best structure for governing and also suggest formation of personnel who are both competent and of good will. While socialism is useful for building up a country, it must, however, be assimilated to the country and not vice versa, for "socialism too is in the service of the country and of the people." The second part of the letter dealt with the religious question which touches "the majority of the population." The Bishops affirmed that while the constitution proclaims religious liberty, in practice, many difficulties and obstacles remain. These difficulties are rooted in a pattern of practical government that seems to be totally contradictory: "It is allowed to...but permission must be obtained..." In fact, these permissions are rarely granted, or regulated arbitrarily by the regional authorities. They complained about inequality before the law: "When our believing compatriots transgress the stipulations of the decree, they are judged and punished. But when it is officials who violate the articles of this degree, there is no sanction." The letter recalled that religious freedom is an important human right and declared: "this is why it should be scrupulously respected and considered as a right and not as a privilege." At the end of the letter they reconfirmed the attitude of the Catholic Church and its desires for the country: "Our religion is characterized by its service to the poor with whom we wish to share. We ask the state to cooperate by creating conditions which will allow us to put our ideal of charity into practice, particularly in more remote regions: Our only intention in doing this work is to serve, and not be increase our personal prestige nor that of our community."
The letter from the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference, which gathered in its 5th General Assembly at Hanoi (October 12-20, 1992), to the Prime Minister of Vietnam and the Office for Religious Affairs brought the obvious petition: "Give us the Freedom to Live our Faith." The letter covered three main areas: activities of the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference, the formation and administration of personnel, and the material infrastructures of the church. The Bishops asked the government to let the church have enough freedom to regulate the internal affairs of the church and to initiate relationships with the churches of other countries, especially with the Holy See. The letter concluded: "the above proposals correspond to the normal needs of any organization approved by the government. They also represent the legitimate desires of the Vietnamese clergy and laity. If they are implemented they will create a new atmosphere and a new dynamism for the construction and defense of our country."
The government considers some ways of proceeding, which the Vatican uses, as serious interference with the inner affairs of Vietnam: such as forbidding clerics t join the Committee of Solidarity (alias Patriotic Church), forbidding them to participate in political service and nomination or removal of bishops without the consensus and permission of the regime. "The Catholic Patriotic Association" was founded in 1983 in Hanoi (it replaced "the Liaison Committee of Patriotic Catholics" which was created in 1954 in North Vietnam) having as its main goal the mobilizing of Catholics to take part (with all the people) in building and defending the country. At the meeting in October 1990 its name was changed to the "Committee for Solidarity of Vietnamese Catholics". In general this organization can not work as effectively as it desires because the church considers it as a civil organization and distinguishes it from ecclesiastical organizations; consequently, it does not permit clerics to participate in it. Nevertheless, in some places like Ho Chi Minh city, it has developed greatly and has had enormous influence because of the youth and intellectuals among its members. The weekly magazine Cong Giao Dana Toc, the mouthpiece of the Patriotic church, functions as the only official newspaper of the church which is allowed by the government. Thus, it plays an important role in suggesting the attitude of Catholics toward society, in circulating the government's message, in initiating the collaboration between state and church. Since the beginning of 1992, it has again been trying to create local committees in other dioceses in the South where till now it has been unsuccessful. Concerning this situation Cardinal Angel Sodden, president of the Congregation for the Clergy, issued a letter to Bishop Nguyen Minh Nhat, president of the Vietnamese Episcopal Conference, recalling the rules of the church forbidding clerics "to assume public offices which entail in participation in the exercise of civil power" (can. 258,3). Reacting to the letter, Mr. Vu Quang, head of the Vietnamese Office for Religious Affairs, issued a document with the title "How will the Vietnamese People Judge the Church." He wrote: "The delegation informed the Nation: 'Priests and Christians are citizens of Vietnam. Such a prohibition goes against the Constitution of Vietnam, citizen's rights and human rights. It also contradicts preceding agreements according to which everything the Vatican desires to accomplish in Vietnam should be discussed beforehand with the Vietnamese government. The government cannot accept the Vatican's prohibition." He proposed that this prohibition not be enforced in Vietnam, and, at the same time, he asked the Vietnamese Church to observe the laws of Vietnam. It is well known that vocations are abundant in Vietnam. However, a contrary phenomena appears: a lack of priests. The government issues strict laws as a method to limit religious activity and formation. Even after formation the candidate has to submit once more to government approval before being ordained. "The ordination of ecclesiastics and of monks of various religions must be approved by the People's Provincial Committee or by the corresponding administrative authority. For the hierarchic rank of Hoa Thuong for the Buddhists, for the rank of cardinal, archbishop or bishop for the Catholics and for the corresponding ranks in the other religions, the approval of the Council of Ministers in needed" (art. 19).
After a long struggle, the relationship between State and Church has reached the point where neither can negate the other, but must, in fact, coexist as people with diverse world-views. Although these world-views are different in their theoretical principles, they have points of convergence: such as liberation from inhumanity and building up of the country for a better future (which means not only economic progress but also fulfillment of humanity grounded on Vietnamese cultural, moral and religious values.)
Before talking about cooperation as a highly esteemed human task, which aims at better coexistence and which helps each side to be liberated from its own prejudices through dialogue and to preserve and supersede its own heritage by transcending itself and rising to a higher level, it is helpful to describe their relationship according to various possible models. The first organizations exist side by side without any convergence or opposition. The USA in the past followed this model, At present, problems have arisen about the meaning of political "neutrality" when lawmakers decide important moral question. The second model is the identification of the Church with the State or vice versa. This total interconnectedness results in either the Church's State or the State's Church. It gives rise to a strong identity or a ghetto. In the side of State policy. The third model is a sub-ordination of the Church to the State, as in a country dominated by an atheist dictatorship. Any religious organization will then be transformed into an instrument of the state. In the long term, religion will be either deformed into ideology, lose its existential meaning and fall into ruin; or religion, as living witness for the transcendent values, react and liberate itself by throwing off its imprisonment. in such a situation the state is forced to change its policy or will itself constituted on the basis of concordat or cooperation. State and Church are in principle autonomous and work together on the basis of a concordat: as a fixed legal agreement about mutual duties and responsibilities, or as an informal concordat based on lively coexistence and cooperation, but without law as a guarantee.
Like other communist regimes, the Vietnamese government began with the third model, considering the church as an instrument which should be subordinated to the control of the regime, hoping that religion would lose its existential meaning once she was confined to the private section or became a social organization which could be manipulated by the authorities under different names. In addition, there are intellectuals who attempt to interpret the Gospel and the teachings of the church under the name of "Theology of Liberation"; this "Theology of Liberation," however, is basically different from that theology, also named "Theology of Liberation," in many local churches in the third world. Although the intentions to subordinate the Church remain a more "refined" government policy, yet another policy on religion is gradually emerging that accepts the co-existence of the church; for, especially during and after the canonization of the 117 martyr saints in 1989, the church has proved, despite of oppression, the vitality of her witness. The shifting to a fourth model appears to be slowly emerging in the process reform and economic transformation, especially after the dramatic change in the communist countries of Eastern Europe. In the mean time, both State and Church are struggling to reach an adequate model of coordination which is suitable for the situation in Vietnam.
We must accept the fact that at their heart the world-views of communism and Christianity are antithetical. Because both are submitted to the same historical conditions, however, they develop some affinities and points of convergence. For Christianity, inspired by the spirit of Vatican II and under the light of the Gospel, "the theology" is transformed into "theologies-in-context" and, thus theologies of liberation have emerged in the pragmatic demands, if it wants to preserve its ideology. There are certain affinities between liberation theology and Marxism: they are both concerned with the very same humanity and both oppose all kinds of "alienation" (in using the Marxist terms) or all sorts of "evil" and "sin" (in the Christian terminology). They both aim to realize "eschatological salvation" in Christian terms or the ideal "communism" in this world, according to Marxist theory. They both have a strong "option for the poor and oppressed" and stress the priority of praxis as the starting point of the process of liberation that each side desires for the same Vietnam people and country. Again, we must acknowledge that two diverse world-views inform these different vocabularies and that these different world views are fundamentally antithetical. The identification or elimination of such an antithesis would prove an illusion. How, then, can they co-exist peacefully without the mutual understanding and respect that comes through dialogue and leads to collaboration? An honest dialogue begins with a common concern that transcends one's own interest; thus, this dialogue implies also a place for mutual challenge and criticism as an element of its constructive task. It is important to see that the basis of dialogue and collaboration is found in a common interest: the destiny of the Vietnamese nation, the happiness and prosperity of its people, and the development of its culture. Involved in such common tasks, State and Church do not need to provoke confrontation and touch upon basic doctrinal questions or to pursue the missionary aim of converting the other side. An intensive convergence is a better way toward self-knowledge and self-purification; in this way, cooperation leads both State and Church to higher level service and liberation. Thus, cooperation actually means mutual liberation.
Rev Vu Kim Chinh, Professor of Fujen Catholic University, Taiwan
Last Updated October 28,1997 by Vky Aldana