Dateline: Vietnam

Prodding South Viet Nam’s Catholic Church Into the 20th Century

Published in American Report, August 5, 1974

By John Spragens, Jr.
Special to American Report

HO NAI, Viet Nam — Parishioners are studying the Bible for themselves in Thai Hoa, and it has the priest so upset he has turned three members of the study group over to the military authorities for conscription into Saigon’s army.

Thai Hoa is one of the parishes here in Ho Nai, 20 miles northeast of Saigon. Virtually all of Ho Nai’s population is Catholic, mostly families who came south in the mid-50’s after the Geneva Agreements. They have long been regarded as the rightest of the right — staunch anti-communists, and likewise strong supporters of the conservative Catholic hierarchy in southern Viet Nam.

The sentiment is not monolithic, though, and while it would be an exaggeration to talk of winds of change, there is a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the status quo. At Thai Hoa, as in several other parishes in Ho Nai, ripples have come to the surface in the form of Bible study groups organized by the parishioners themselves.

“I don’t see why they think they need those groups,” says Fr. Tran Cong Hoan, the parish priest. “We already have Bible study here in the parish house.”

“The priest says we should study the Bible just to know it,” responds one member of the group, “and he wants us to understand it his way. But we want to study the scriptures directly, and then put them into practice.”

What disturbs Father Hoan and other traditionalists among the clergy even more is that the renegades are comparing the behavior of the priests to the biblical message, and challenging clerical abuses of the near absolute power they wield over secular as well as spiritual matters in their parishes.

Several parishioners, clustered in the main room of a small house pieced together from cast-off plywood and sheets of corrugated metal, recount one of the incidents which provoked Father Hoan’s ire.

The priest had raised 800 piasters ($1.25) from each family in the parish to build a school. The Saigon government would have built a school for the area, but Father Hoan argued that if it were a government school they would not be able to teach the scriptures there, and the children’s spiritual life would suffer. The people chipped in, but to this day no school has been built.

And so more recently, when Father Hoan called for the people to contribute 2,000 piasters ($3.20) per family to refurbish the church, the study group opposed the plan. The group pointed out that there had been no accounting for the money already collected to build a school, and since the parish is one of the poorest in the area it would be an undue hardship on the people. Besides, they said, it is not good to get caught up in the inter-parish competition to see who can build the largest and most elaborate church structure.

The study group carried the day. But because of this and other incidents, Father Hoan has flexed his political muscle, which in a Catholic village is greater than that of Saigon government officials. In fact, he had Do Van Khoi, the chief of the Thai Hoa section of Thanh Hoa village and a member of the study group, replaced with someone more pliable. As Khoi put it, “The priest is king in his parish.”

Secular Clout

Several members of the study group are of draft age and, like scores of other young men in the Ho Nai area, were dodging. So long as they were on good terms with the priest, they enjoyed his protection. But when they crossed him, he pointed them out to the military authorities and three were conscripted. Several others fled to safer havens.

Father Hoan also denounced the members of the group as “Protestants.” When that didn’t sufficiently impress his parishioners with the danger of the situation, he broadcast a little sermonette over the loudspeaker system that transmits in all directions from a pole in the church yard.

There is a group in our village, Father Hoan told his flock, that is making propaganda for the communists by holding a memorial service for Ho Chi Minh and reading his testament in place of the scriptures. “Thai Hoa has a few important elements which must be eradicated. They must not be allowed to spread and harm the church.”

Most of the parishioners are afraid to cross the priest. If nothing else, they know if they associate with people he has denounced as communists, he may get them in trouble with the Saigon authorities. So now the members of the group are almost completely isolated, and some are talking of moving elsewhere.

Others, however, vow to wait for the opportunity to talk with the people again. “When we talked to the people, they thought what we were saying made sense.” said one group member.

The group at Thai Hoa calls itself Tin Mung Hom Nay — “Good News for Today” — after a Saigon-based newsletter of the same name which began early this year. Tin Mung Hom Nay is one of several efforts by a group of priests, mostly in the Saigon area, to prod the Catholic church in southern Viet Nam into the 20th century.

In part, these efforts draw on theological groundwork laid down in Rome. Most Catholic lay people here are little aware of the principles which emerged from Vatican Council II over a decade ago. The Council's documents were translated into Vietnamese and published by the church, but were then withdrawn from circulation. Similarly, few priests have been anxious to put the church’s “Year of Reconciliation” theme into practice to bridge the obvious Cathholic-communist gap here. The progressives are trying to get the message out.

Father Nguyen Ngoc Lan, who has been active in such reform moves for years, notes that it would not be fair to say, though, that their efforts were begun because of Vatican II. Besides the need people feel for internal reforms within the church, there is a nascent awareness of the need to rescue the church from its historical position as servant of the colonial masters, and make it a servant of the Vietnamese people.

The same calling to servanthood which has motivated progressive priests to work as garbage collector and pedicab drivers, and which has urged Catholic students to support striking factory workers, also calls them to struggle for peace. “We must first solve this problem of the whole country," Father Lan says. “Then we can worry about internal reform.”

In the current political atmosphere in Saigon government areas, Catholics are as restricted as anyone when it comes to direct struggle. Progressive Catholics, like other opposition groups, are concentrating on the circulation of ideas and information.

“It would be hard for them to arrest me just for my opinions,” Father Lan says. “Catholic anti-communism has been a foundation stone for them. So what are they going to do? If they ask me to sign a confession saying, ‘I, Fr. Nguyen Ngoc Lan, am a communist agent,’ I’ll sign it. So then they can say they have arrested a communist priest. Who would get the advantage? The Liberation Front! So they’re stuck. But if I were leading a demonstration, they’d arrest me as fast as anyone else. Being a priest isn’t that much protection.”

Besides study groups and sermons, these progressive priests and lay people circulate their ideas in several underground publications. Tin Mung Horn Nay is one. It, like a student magazine Giao — “Exchange,” is specifically Catholic, deals with internal problems of the church, and emphasizes providing a theological context in which Catholics can work for peace and national reconciliation.

Chon — “Selections" — also aimed at a specifically Catholic readership while it lasted (during 1971 and 1972). It presented extended essays on subjects ranging from revolutionary Catholics in Latin America and changes in official church policy toward communism to a memoir about the Catholic resistance against the French in Viet Nam.

Catholics also play a major role in the monthly Doi Dien — “Confrontation” — one of the most important and widely circulated of third force publications.

There are only about a dozen of southern Viet Nam’s 2,000-odd priests involved in these efforts. But the dozen are working hard to create a theological basis for renewal in the church here. The rest of the 2,000 work much less, and when they do respond to the progressives' theological arguments, it is with little but personal slanders.

The dozen include some men who have undergone tremendous changes. Fr. Nguyen Viet Khai, for one, was imprisoned and beaten by the Viet Minh in the mid-50’s, came south, became chaplain to Ngo Dinh Diem, and traveled around the country setting up anti-communist struggle hamlets (see AR, Oct. 22, 1971). But since 1969, Father Khai has been preaching the message of reconciliation between Catholic Vietnamese and communist Vietnamese.

Even more remarkable is the experience of Fr. Nguyen Van Binh, who was captured in Quang Tri province during the 1972 offensive and taken to northern Viet Nam. He was returned to the south some three months later.

“You might say I was brainwashed,” Father Binh says, “But I brainwashed myself.” When he first returned, he was frustrated and even bitter at having been held for weeks alone in a prison camp in the vicinity of Son Tay, scene of the abortive U.S. “prisoner rescue” raid. “I had privately considered myself anti-war, and thought that it was Christ’s challenge to me to learn to live with the communists,” he remembered.

Conservative Church Structure

Far from being welcomed for his openness, though, he was suspected and carefully investigated. It took a year’s reflection after he returned before Father Binh understood just how suspicious he must have seemed.

“The first thing that was suspicious was that I had stayed when all the rest of the priests and nuns had left. Besides, I had a bunch of French spy novels, and there were copies of letters in English that I had written for other priests to request supplies from the Americans.”

Now Father Binh is anxious to share what he learned, especially the experiences he and a group of captured nuns had during a tour of several Catholic areas of the north.

The communist cadre, he says, respect the Catholic farmers because they are harder working than the average. But many of the Catholic clergy are too attached to the material possessions of the church and the temporal prerogatives which clergy used to enjoy. And so their experience, like that of their counterparts in the south, is very much out of touch with that of their parishioners, to say nothing of the population at large.

Progressives would like to see the church in the south overcome that estrangement from the people, and go into the future with a positive attitude toward reconciliation and social renewal. Even though the church structure remains thoroughly conservative, they see changes among lay members.

“Before 1960,” says Father Khai, “when they heard the word ‘communist’ 100 per cent of the northern refugee Catholics would be afraid. Now 50 to 60 per cent of them are no longer afraid.”

Recently, in fact, the sons and daughters of northern refugee families have been among the most active. Nine out of ten of the Catholics involved in the 1971 student struggles, for example, were from northern families. Far from supporting the old political and religious order, they are intent on finding their own way to revolutionize society.

“People who are following Christ can easily make revolution,” Father Lan explains. “When it becomes a matter of a church with buildings and possessions, then revolution is difficult.”

Copyright John Spragens, Jr.

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