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Long before the French Republic, the Vatican grasped the historical reality of Vietnamese nationalism and the global dimensions and implications of decolonization. With the Church in decline in much of Europe by the early 20th century, the Vatican realized that much of its future support would come from non-Western parts of the world, vast parts of which had been colonized by European colonial states. Of particular importance was the need to “indigenize” still mainly European-dominated clergies and hierarchies and to disassociate the Vatican and its local hierarchies from European colonialism in the “South”, where nationalism was now making itself increasingly felt in the wake of World War I. Pope Benedict XV had already referred to the intermingling of the Church’s interests and those of the colonial powers as a “most dangerous plague”. In 1919, Benedict began to attack this problem with his apostolic letter Maximum Illud, which was followed up by Pius XI’s 1926 Encyclical Rerum Ecclesiae.

To the shock of French colonial authorities in Vietnam, Rome had publicly and officially rejected a tacit contract between Western colonial states and local missionaries. By the early 1930s, French colonial administrators were hostile to the Vatican’s “politique indigène”, seeing it as an anti-colonialist threat to French rule and one which could call into question the legitimacy of colonial rule among the Vietnamese. While Vietnamese Catholic nationalists heralded Rome’s recognition of their nationalist aspirations, French colonial authorities tried to block the Vatican’s naming of Vietnamese bishops, who could escape colonial control. The French were even more suprised, in the wake of World War II, when they learned that Rome had sent its best wishes to the new nation state Ho Chi Minh declared a reality on 2 September 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). Rome understood again that this second World War had made decolonization an even more pressing matter and that the Church could not afford to be caught on the wrong side of this historical phenomenon.

Throughout the Indochina War, Vatican officials frustrated French officials by their reluctance to support French demands to bring the Vietnamese Catholics and clergy into colonial line. The problem was that the nationalist movement was led by a communist party, antipathetic to Pius XII. In June 1948, as the Cold War heated up, the Vatican went on record saying that the Vietnamese communists were “little by little” showing their real colors: they were not patriots but rather leaders of an anti-religious party who would sooner or later implement “a systematic persecution” of Vietnamese Catholics. On 1 July 1949, as Chinese communists were moving into southern China, Pope Pius XII issued a papal decree prohibiting all collaboration with communists in all parts of the Catholic world, in the north and the south. The French lost no time in Vietnam, dropping thousands of copies of the decree over Catholic populations, especially in the autonomous Catholic zones of Bui Chu and Phat Diem.

Even though Rome proscribed collaboration with the communists, this did not necessarily mean that the Vatican condoned the French. Indeed, during the war, the Vatican remained committed to nationalizing the Vietnamese church, naming six apostolic vicars, including in Hanoi and Haiphong. Although the Vatican followed the lead of Vietnamese Catholic leaders, such as Le Huu Tu, in recognizing Bao Dai’s Associated State of Vietnam on anti-communist grounds, the Vatican kept its distance from the Vietnamese emperor and his Catholic wife, in light of the French reluctance to grant Bao Dai’s Vietnam full independence. In December 1954, Pope Pius XII recognized the right of colonized peoples across the world to political freedom. For the Vatican, the future of the Church was in the postcolonial world coming into being whether the colonial powers wanted it or not. The American Catholic Church agreed. In May 1948, Cardinal Spellman arrived in Saigon at the head of a large delegation. During this visit, Cardinal Fulton Sheen declared that colonialism was finished and that the Roman Catholic Church now counted on the Far East to serve as a “solid pillar” for developing the Christian faith. See also CATHOLICS IN VIETNAM AND THE WAR; CHRISTIANS AND FRENCH OPPOSITION TO THE WAR; ESPRIT; LE HUU TU; TÉMOIGNAGE CHRÉTIEN.