Catholic Church and Vietnam War

Catholic Church and Vietnam War

Keith, Charhes. Catholic Vietnam. University of California Press, 2013.

Keith (2013) presents the dilemma that some Vietnam Catholics faced during the wars. He analyzes the effects the Great War on the relationship between French colonial administrators and the Catholic Church represented by the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP). He argues that the war did not help solve the church-state tension that already existed long before its outbreak. In the face of an imminent attack by German, French president Raymond Poincaré, in his sacred union call, invited everyone including religious groups and state opponents to unite and rally against the Germans. However, the missionaries who viewed themselves as patriots would not consent. Consequently, a state of tension ensued between the colonial administrators and MEP.

Thus, Keith argues the war only served to fuel the existing tensions between the Catholic Church and the state. He asserts that the refusal by the missionaries to join hands in the war was on moral grounds. The goal of MEP was to develop local churches outside Europe. The missionaries felt that participating in the war would hamper their activities pertaining the expansion of the Church. Keith highlights some of the factors that could have contributed to the position that MEP took. One possible reason was that the missionaries had a doubtful view concerning the sacred union. They probably had reflected on the memories of previous instances when the Ferry laws attacked the Church and pushed for the separation of the state from the influences of the Church.  Nevertheless, even though the opted to leave the country, they had concerns over the possible consequences of their departure. At the time, missionaries held responsible positions in the state that enabled them to facilitate the activities of the Church. Their departure would have dire consequences on its growth.

Keith, Charles. Catholic Vietnam, edited by Charles Keith, University of California Press, 2012

The Catholic Church in Vietnam played significant roles in the nationalistic movements.  Keith (2012) highlights some of the ways in which the Church pushed for national and religious reforms.  He asserts that the Church had an ordinate desire to take part in movements that pushed for national and religious independence. The Church directed its principal anger on the colonial missionaries. Its involvement in nationalistic movements was through different fronts. First, the Vietnamese youths formed the several Catholic Action associations. They organized coups in attempts to eradicate French colonial missionaries from the country.  The missionaries responded by imposing bans on the organizations, but to no avail. Even the youths in seminaries began opposing the missionaries. For instance, in September 1945, students from one of the major seminaries participated in a mass action to demonstrate against their superiors. Other Catechists formed small militia groups to defend themselves.

Opposition to missionaries also rose from local Vietnamese priests. For a long period, they had developed animosity toward their superiors.  On the 23rd day of September, the association of Vietnamese bishops wrote letters of protest to the Vatican. It was evident that the Catholic Church in Vietnam wanted independence from their colonial masters. Their enthusiasm resulted into many of them being recruited in government resistant networks. In 1946, France recognized Vietnam as an independent state. However, the push by the Catholic Church did not end there. They organized themselves into movements that continued attacking French soldiers. Hence, before and after Vietnamese independent, the Catholic Church was central in the country’s push for national and religious independence.

Morgan, Joseph G. “A Change of Course: American Catholics, Anticommunism, and the Vietnam War.” U.S. Catholic Historian, vol. 22, no. 4, 2004, pp. 117–130.,

After France’s defeat, the U.S. began intensifying its activities against Russia’s communist regime in South Vietnam. Many American Catholics expressed their satisfaction with U.S. intervention. However, by the late 1960s, as the Vietnam War progressed, they began expressing their views against American policies. Morgan (2004) examines the factors that led to the widespread shift of American Catholics opinion toward U.S. activities and its involvement in the war in Vietnam. Morgan bases his argument on comments from five leading periodicals at the time: the National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, America, the Brooklyn Tablet, and Ave Maria.

The article highlights three factors that contributed to the shifts in attitudes. The first one is the Ngo Dinh Diem factor. The main reason why American Catholics welcomed U.S.’ moves was Washington’s stand against Russia’s communism. The Catholic Church, like the U.S. has always opposed communism. It perceives the ideology as an obstacle to global peace and human freedom. Vietnamese hatred toward the Russians made them believe that an American intervention would be necessary. When Diem became the President in 1954, Catholics expressed their satisfaction. Diem was a Catholic. He would definitely promote the Church’s agenda. However, his authoritative rule earned him public contempt and eventual assassination. Despite the fact that many Vietnamese no longer supported Diem’s regime, America did not withdraw its support. Accordingly, the Church saw the U.S. as promoting Diem’s policies.

The second reason behind the shifts was America’s reaction to communism insurgence. After the overthrow of Diem’s regime, a communist victory was eminent. U.S. president Johnson responded by authorizing the Rolling Thunder, a systematic bombing of North Vietnam. His decision attracted criticism from peace activists and the majority of American Catholics. The public began presenting contrasting views regarding the war. Another factor that Morgan points out is the changes that occurred within the Church. As the war escalated, the Church began advocating for dialogue instead of direct combat. Since the view of the Church had changed, American Catholics also shifted their opinions.

Insun, Yu, and Choi Dong-Ju. “A Re-Examination of America’s Indochina Policy during the French Presence: Arms Transfer For Diplomatic Leverage And The Role Of The Catholics.” Journal of International and Area Studies, vol. 6, no. 2, 1999, pp. 75–90.,

Much debate exist on American foreign involvements. Insun and Dong-Ju (1999) examine the objectives and nature of the U.S. involvement in the affairs of Vietnam. In evaluating the role of religion in political activities, the authors argue that the Catholic Church played significant roles in the events leading to the war in Vietnam. However, it acted cautiously to avoid attracting attention from the international community. The Vatican has always acted major parts in U.S. foreign involvements. Specifically, the Catholic Church contributed significantly to the U.S. intervention in the war in Vietnam. After the eradication of European Fascism following the conclusion of the Second World War, the Vatican became a primary U.S. ally.

At the core of the war was the issue of nationalism. Many Vietnam Catholics saw communism as a threat to national and religious independence. Consequently, it attracted animosity from Vietnamese. Many people hated communism more than they hated French regime. The Vatican took advantage of the situation and implanted the idea of an inevitable war in the minds o Vietnamese. When Cold War erupted, the Vatican took a central lead in spreading hatred for Russia for its support to Communism. Within a few years of the War, American Catholic theologians succeeded in convincing the U.S. to take action against Russia.

The collaboration between Washington and the Vatican was also evident when Defense Secretary James Forrestal supported Pius XII to ascend to papacy. In August 1950, Francis Mathews, Secretary of the U.S. Navy and a prominent Catholic, called on America to launch an attack on Russia. Even after, Russia and France indicted their reluctance to engage in an armed combat, Pius XII and the Vatican led religious campaigns to convince America that the war was inevitable.





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