Conflict and Unity: The Paradox of Catholic Vietnam

Charles Keith’s recent book on Catholicism in Vietnam offers many important insights while pointing the way for further studies

The call to love one’s heritage permeates the childhood of many Vietnamese-American Catholics. However, many historical accounts of the Catholic Church in Vietnam suggest a contradiction between being both a Catholic and a Vietnamese patriot. For example, biographies written by nineteenth-century missionaries portray Vietnamese Catholics as “victims of a pagan nation” who supported French rule.1 In his book Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation, Charles Keith, an Assistant Professor of History at Michigan State, debunks this reductionist model and astutely shows how the rise and fall of French colonialism, along with ecclesiastical and cultural factors, shaped the history of Catholicism in Vietnam.

Keith’s exemplary scholarship shines through in his overview of how missionary and colonial expansion shaped Vietnamese Catholics’ relationships with other political forces. The emperors who governed Vietnam during the nineteenth-century viewed Catholicism as a Western import that undermined the foundations of Vietnamese hierarchy and society. Furthermore, some Vietnamese viewed Catholicism as inherently opposed to what it meant to be Vietnamese. This led to the destruction of Church property and violence towards priests and catechists, which Keith calls “communitarian conflict.”Increased French control over Vietnam in the late nineteenth-century further intensified communitarian conflicts and anti-French sentiments, resulting in the martyrdom of several thousand Catholics in 1885.

While Vietnamese Catholics venerated the martyrs, Keith rightly points out that this does not translate to Vietnamese Catholics supporting French colonialism. “Ruptures of French rule,” Keith explains, “led many Vietnamese—Catholics and others—to question long-standing social norms and forms of authority.”2 Also, some of the new missionaries’ immoral conduct and condescending treatment led many Vietnamese Catholics to undermine missionary authority, further straining the relationships between Vietnamese Catholics, French rulers, and French missionaries. According to Keith, the Vietnamese Catholics’ compounded animosity towards the French nurtured a desire for both a national Church and an autonomous nation.

One of the innovative aspects of Catholic Vietnam is Keith’s attempt to analyze the relationship between religion and politics. He points out that despite previous communitarian conflicts, Vietnamese Catholics, for the most part, saw no contradiction between being both a Catholic and a nationalist. Prominent twentieth-century Catholic leaders such as Nguyễn Hữu BÀi sought to strengthen Vietnam’s ties to Rome, and he and his friend Ngô Đình Khả (father of Ngô Đình Diệm, the first president of the Republic of Vietnam) displayed fervent loyalty to the Vietnamese monarchy.3 However, Keith seems to minimize how the Catholic faith pervaded these leaders’ actions. While he briefly discusses Nguyễn Hữu BÀi’s support of Marian devotions, Keith does not seem to recognize how both BÀi and Khả’s religious beliefs were the driving force behind their political motivations. Following in the Vietnamese martyrs’ footsteps, BÀi and Khả’s fidelity to their Christian faith took primacy over everything else. They zealously worked towards an autonomous Vietnam because they believed it to be God’s will for the Vietnamese people.4 Keith’s analysis does not fully take into account that for BÀi and Khả, as well as some other prominent Catholic leaders, following in the footsteps of the martyrs meant being patriots. Their political motivations were certainly important, but their Christian faith was the foundation for their political action. Keith’s understatement of this renders an incomplete examination of the connection between religion and politics.

In the second half of his book, Keith further explores how the emergence of a national Church led to an abundant support for national independence. In 1933, Nguyễn BÁ Tòng was ordained as the first bishop of Vietnam, marking a turning point for Vietnamese Catholics. The Catholic Church in Vietnam was transitioning from being a French Catholic mission to becoming a national Church. This cultivated nationalistic attitudes in both Vietnamese Catholics and non-Catholics. To the dismay of French colonialists and missionaries, prominent Catholic intellectuals contributed to the nationalist movement by publishing opinion pieces regarding different notions of nationalism. Nevertheless, relationships between Catholics and other nationalists, particularly the Communists, were strained. Many Catholics withdrew their support from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (established after World War II), further damaging the relationship between Communist leaders and the Church. Ultimately, most Catholics favored Ngô Đình Diệm, a Catholic nationalist who would be the first president of the Republic of Vietnam in 1955. Keith argues, however, that Vietnamese Catholics were far from unified. He explains that many Vietnamese Catholics (as well as non-Catholics) criticized Diệm’s abuses and the corruption in his regime, leading to deep divisions among Vietnamese Catholics. These ruptures and political divisions resulted in a fragmented Church, leaving the question of the Vietnamese Church’s place in its nation’s history unanswered.5

Although Keith’s final analysis is admirable, one problematic aspect is his incomplete portrayal of Diệm. Keith does not take into account that events during Diệm’s term were highly ambiguous and controversial. In his memoirs From Trust to Tragedy, Frederick Nolting (an American ambassador to South Vietnam during Diệm’s presidency), suggests that much of the antagonism against Diệm was caused by the Vietnamese Communists’ tactics and false journalism. Nolting claims that Communists, concerned with Diệm’s progress in the South, worked to “undermine the government of the South, to set back or destroy what had been painfully built up by the Diệm government over the past years. Their instruments were slander, propaganda, incitement of local grievances,”6 and other tactics. Analyzing how this changes one’s understanding of Vietnamese Catholicism’s place in its country’s history is beyond the scope of this review. A positive reevaluation of Diệm, however, does propose that the divisions among Catholics caused by opposition to Diệm’s regime may be based more on misunderstandings and slander than differing ideologies, suggesting that the divisions among Vietnamese Catholics are not as deep as Keith claims. More extensive research would have to be done in this area before firm conclusions can be reached.

Another element not fully consider in Keith’s analysis of the history of Vietnamese Catholicism is the spiritual patrimony received from the martyrs. Keith describes the Vietnamese’s veneration of the martyrs and some of the devotional practices, but he minimizes how the martyrs’ sacrifices imbued their lives. Although other motivations were present, the call to a vibrant life of faith, hope, and charity had a primacy in the lives of Vietnamese Catholics. This spiritual patrimony was the underlying unity of Catholics during the first half of the twentieth century and still resonates in the lives of present Vietnamese Catholics today.

As a whole, Keith insightfully provides a window into the development of Vietnamese Catholicism. While this study lacks a comprehensive discussion of the development of Vietnamese Catholic spirituality that one might expect from a book called Catholic Vietnam, this does not discount Keith’s excellent scholarship regarding a complex, controversial period in Vietnamese history. His work offers a meaningful contribution to understanding both the history of Vietnamese Catholicism and Vietnam.

Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation
by Charles Keith
University of California Press, 2012
333 pages. Hardcover.


1Charles Keith, Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation (University of California Press, 2012), p. 6

2Ibid., p. 79

3Ibid., p. 98-99

4See André Nguyễn Văn Châu, The Miracle of Hope (Pauline Books and Media, 2003), p. 16-19. Miracle of Hope is the biography of the late Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận, Khả’s grandson. It illustrates Cardinal Thuận’s perspective on his highly political family and their allies. According to Cardinal Thuận, Khả’s deep devotion for the Vietnamese martyrs pervaded his entire life; he instilled in his family that their first duty was fidelity to their faith. His love for God was the basis of his love for Vietnam.

5Keith, p. 246-248

6Frederick Nolting, From Trust to Tragedy: The Political Memoirs of Frederick Nolting, Kennedy’s Ambassador to Diệm’s Vietnam (Praeger, 1988), p. 9. Other assessments of this era, such as Francis Xavier Winter’s The Year of the Hare: New Light on the Anti-Diem Coup (University of Georgia Press, 1999)and Mark Moyar’s Triumph Forsaken (Cambridge University Press, 2006),have reevaluated previous scholarship on Diệm and suggest that his presidency has been highly distorted and misinterpreted.

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About Sr. Maria Thuan Nguyen 3 Articles
Sr. Maria Thuan Nguyen is a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia. She received her Masters of Arts in Teaching at Aquinas College in Nashville, TN and currently teaches at Bishop Machebeuf High School in Denver.