Historical Dictionary



The Indochina War profoundly affected Vietnamese Catholicism, and Vietnamese Catholics influenced the nature of the war.

The Vietnamese first encountered Catholicism when seaborne trading routes brought an increasing number of European Catholic missionaries to Asia. By the late 17th century, some 100,000 Vietnamese had converted to Catholicism for a variety of socio-economic and political reasons. These numbers increased in the following centuries as Catholicism became one of Vietnam’s main religions. In 1945, 1.6 million Vietnamese were Catholics.

However, relations between Vietnamese leaders and Catholic missionaries were not without serious problems. Despite the aid provided by the French Bishop Pigneau de Béhaine to Nguyen Phuc Anh (Gia Long) during the latter’s unification of Vietnam in 1802, subsequent Nguyen Kings adopted increasingly hostile policies towards Catholic missionaries they suspected of challenging their moral authority and control over populations. Keen on expanding French influence into Asia, the French Catholic Emperor Napoléon III exploited the Nguyen dynasty’s persecution of missionaries to justify intervention in and colonization of Cochinchina in the mid-19th century. While secular-minded republican colonial administrators in Indochina were anything but supporters of the Church, they supported European Catholic missions and Vietnamese Catholics, convinced that they were natural colonial allies.

Things were not so clear-cut in practice, however. During the interwar period, Vietnamese Catholicism in particular became more nationally minded, pushing for the Vietnamization of the Church’s clergy and leadership in Vietnam. To the consternation of French colonial authorities, the Vatican showed itself increasingly supportive of the “indigenization” of the clergies in the non-Western world, including that of Vietnam. The Vatican’s postcolonial vision was expressed best in Benedict XV’s 1919 apostolic letter Maximum Illud and Pius XI’s 1926 encyclical Rerum Ecclesiae. The colonial (and anti-colonialist) idea according to which the Vatican and Vietnamese Catholics were collaborators is misleading.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the national support Vietnamese Catholics and their leaders pledged to the new nation-state declared by Ho Chi Minh in September 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). On 1 November 1945, one of Vietnam’s best-known nationalist Catholics from Phat Diem, Le Huu Tu, was ordained archbishop without the interference of French colonial administrators or European missionaries. As Franco-American historian Charles Keith has noted, the “event marked the degree to which Vietnamese bishops had become a locus of growing cultural nationalism in the Vietnamese Catholic community”. Hostile to the return of French colonialism, Le Huu Tu accepted Ho Chi Minh’s invitation to serve as a supreme advisor to the government. Although Catholic leaders knew that communists were the driving force behind the DRV, between 1945 and 1949, in the absence of a full-blown Cold War, Vietnamese religious leaders like Le Huu Tu stressed anti-colonialism and nationalism and did their best to keep Vietnamese Catholics out of the cross-fire following the outbreak of full-scale war between the DRV and the French on 19 December 1946. Indeed, the two dioceses of Bui Chu and Phat Diem constituted something of an autonomous Catholic national zone in lower Tonkin. In the late 1940s, Le Huu Tu was largely successful in keeping the French colonialists and the Vietnamese communists at bay.

From 1950, however, the attempts by both the French and the DRV to take control of autonomous Catholic areas, the radicalization of the DRV stemming from its entry into the communist bloc, the Vatican’s condemnation of any collaboration with communists, and the emergence of the non-communist Associated State of Vietnam backed by the United States, led religious leaders to lean to the anti-communist side but without abandoning their nationalist and anti-colonialist tack. Catholic autonomy in Phat Diem and Bui Chu finally came to an end in 1951, when the French insisted on taking control of the regions administratively and militarily. Catholic leaders had little choice but to concede.

Nonetheless, the intransigent nationalist position of Catholic Vietnamese leaders led many French strategists to question their loyalty. General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny not only blamed Catholics in Phat Diem for the loss of his son, but he also expelled one of Vietnam’s most respected Catholic intellectuals at the time, Nguyen Manh Ha. Despite its condemnation of cooperation with communists, the Vatican continued to support the indigenization and decolonization of Catholicism in Vietnam. Vietnamese took over vicariates in Hanoi and Bac Ninh in 1950, Vinh in 1951, Haiphong in 1953, and Saigon in 1955. See also CAO DAI; CATHOLICS, EXODUS FROM NORTH; CHRISTIANS AND FRENCH OPPOSITION TO THE INDOCHINA WAR; COLLABORATION; HOA HAO.