Pope Francis meets Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (L), during a private audience in Vatican, November 23, 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Maurizio Brambatti/Pool
Pope Francis meets Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang (L), during a private audience in Vatican, November 23, 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Maurizio Brambatti/Pool

Overshadowed by current secret talks — and a possible breakthrough agreement — between the Vatican and China after 65 years of estrangement, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang’s trip to the Vatican last Wednesday (Nov. 23) did not attract a good deal of international attention.

Mr. Quang’s Vatican visit — during which he was privately received by Pope Francis and held talks with the Holy See’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Secretary for Relations with the States Archbishop Paul Gallagher — was the sixth by a Vietnamese leader since 2007.

All of this shows, while Beijing has just secretly entered talks with the Vatican this year, its communist comrades in Hanoi have long established high-level dialogue with the latter.

Significant improvements

Vietnam’s first communist leader to meet and hold talks with the head of the Catholic Church was Nguyen Tan Dung. In 2007, Mr. Dung, then Prime Minister, was received by now retired Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican.

Another landmark meeting came two years later when Pope Benedict received Vietnam’s then President Nguyen Minh Triet.

In 2013, the German Pope accorded Nguyen Phu Trong a reception generally reserved for heads of state/government. The audience was the first ever between a Roman Pontiff and the head of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Mr. Trong came to the Vatican accompanied by a high-level delegation, which included Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Vietnam’s then deputy Prime Minister and current Prime Minister.

In March 2014, Nguyen Sinh Hung, then Chairman of Vietnam’s National Assembly (parliament), was granted an audience with Pope Francis, who succeeded the German Pontiff in 2013.

Nguyen Tan Dung made a second trip to the Holy See in October 2014, when he was received by the Argentine Pope.

In Vietnam’s political system, the quartet — namely party chief (general secretary), state president, prime minister and parliament chair — are the four highest-ranking officials. This being so, the communist country is probably one of a few nations whose leaders have been most received by the head of the Catholic Church in recent years.

These visits were both the results of — and the stimuli for — other positive developments in Vatican-Vietnam relations.

Dung’s 2007 meeting with Pope Benedict and other high-ranking officials at the Vatican was the outcome of numerous dialogues and, with them, improvements in bilateral ties that date back to late 1980s and early 1990s, when the PCV undertook major economic reforms and opened up to the West.

In 1989, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, Chairman of the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, made an official two-week trip to Vietnam. During this visit, the first such by a Vatican official to the country since 1975, the French prelate was allowed to visit many dioceses and parishes. He also met with Vietnamese government officials.

After 1975, though it did not carry out severely repressive measures as Beijing did, Hanoi tightly controlled the Catholic Church. It limited the Church’s religious activities, confiscated a great number of its properties and banned it from running schools, hospitals and other social and charitable services.

Cardinal Etchegaray’s milestone trip paved the way for both sides to open official dialogue, exchange high-level visits and reach important agreements one a wide range of issues, e.g. reopening of seminaries and appointment of bishops.

Over years, the Vatican-Hanoi relationship gradually improved, resulting in Mr. Dung’s 2007 audience with Pope Benedict, which was hailed as “a new and important step toward the normalization of bilateral relations.”

The first result of that visit was the creation of a Vietnam-Holy See Joint Working Group (JWG). The main aim of this group, which convened its first meeting in Hanoi in 2009, is to discuss the issue of diplomatic relations.

After Nguyen Minh Triet’s visit in 2009 and the working group’s second meeting in 2010, another significant breakthrough came in 2011 when Hanoi agreed to let the Holy See name a nonresident representative — Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, the nuncio in Singapore — to the country.

Following Tran Dai Quang’s audience with Pope Francis, a statement from the Vatican Press Office said: during their “cordial” meeting, the two leaders spoke of “the good relations between the Holy See and Vietnam, supported by a common spirit of dialogue and a constant search for the most appropriate instruments so they can make further progress.”

Quang’s Vatican trip took place just about a month after the sixth meeting of the JWG in Rome, during which both Hanoi and Vatican also “acknowledged the progress” in their relations.

A concrete result of such progress can be the establishment of the Catholic Institute of Vietnam, the first ever institution of its kind during the last four decades. The university-level institute was inaugurated in Ho Chi Minh City nearly three months ago.

Indeed, the Vietnamese government’s relationship with the local Church and the Vatican has advanced considerably.

Compared with their ties in the 1975-1989 period or with the current China-Vatican situation, Vietnamese authorities’ relations with the Vatican and the Vietnamese Catholic Church are now far much better.

Like their compatriots, Vietnamese Catholics are enjoying greater freedom, which is almost unimaginable 30 or 40 years ago.

Despite recent negotiations and reportedly a historic agreement, it will take years, if not decades, for Vatican and Beijing to reach the level of mutual understanding and cooperation that the Holy See and Hanoi have achieved.

Unlike the Catholic Church in Vietnam, the Catholic Church in China has long been split into two opposing factions — an “underground Church”, loyal to the Pope and severely oppressed by Chinese authorities and an “official Church”, overseen by China Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), a state-controlled organ established under Mao Zedong, and loyal to Beijing.

Any significant rapprochement requires the Chinese government and — more likely — the Holy See to make substantial concessions. Such compromises are also not easy as they have immense implications.

At the heart of the long-standing dispute — and the current talks or any breakthrough deal — between the Vatican and the Beijing concerns the appointment of bishops.

Hanoi and Vatican have reached an agreement on this key issue for years. This is mainly because in Vietnam, there exists no China-like “official Church” whose bishops are appointed by communist — and, in principle, atheist — officials.

That is why Cardinal Joseph Zen, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, has recently criticized the Vatican’s fast rapprochement with Beijing, saying that any deal with Beijing involving the Holy See’s recognition of CPCA bishops would be “betraying Jesus Christ”.

So close but still so far?

Yet, even with such huge improvements in their relations, Hanoi and the Vatican are yet to normalize ties. That means, Vietnam remains one of about a dozen of nations in the world that have not yet established — or will not establish — diplomatic relations with the Holy See.

Following the positive developments fostered by Nguyen Tan Dung’s 2007 visit, it was expected that Nguyen Minh Triet’s 2009 trip could lead to the establishment of diplomatic relations and/or an invitation to the head of the Catholic Church to visit Vietnam.

But neither of these happened. It is also unlikely that neither will come soon.

The Vatican’s statement on Tran Dai Quang’s visit did not mention the normalization issue. Neither did the joint press release of the joint working group’s recent meeting in Rome. Instead, the discussions of this meeting mainly focused on the recent reform of the religious freedom bill in Vietnam.

Religious freedom has long been an issue in the Vietnamese government’s ties with the United States, the European Union and other international organizations. It has also been an obstacle in its relations with the Vatican and the local Church.

With about six million members — 1.5 million more than the CPV, the Vietnamese Catholic Church, which is very dynamic and organized, wants to have greater freedom to engage in — and contribute to — the society. Two areas, in which it has experience, expertise and resources and is strongly called to work are education and healthcare.

However, with few exceptions, e.g. the Catholic Institute of Vietnam and kindergartens run by nuns, the Catholics are not yet allowed to open schools and hospitals, while other local and foreign groups have long been given such permission.

Before 1975, there were about 2,000 educational structures, from nurseries to higher education institutes, including some prestigious universities, run by the Catholics in the South.

Tensions have also arisen between some local authorities and local churches, relating to church properties seized by the regime after 1975 and other issues, such as justice, human rights, freedom of speech.

However, though all of these disagreements between Hanoi and the Vatican and the local Church have hindered the normalization process between the Holy See and Hanoi, they are not the only or main reasons.

While the Vatican has long been ready to establish full diplomatic ties with Hanoi, the latter has been reluctant to make such a move. A key reason behind its hesitancy is that the leadership in Hanoi does not want to upset Beijing.

Intentionally or not, Vietnam’s normalization of ties with the Holy See would put the spotlight and even pressure on China. As they highly value ties with their neighboring communists, Vietnamese leaders avoid creating such a situation.

Their unwillingness is also manifested by the fact that though many of them have been warmly received by the head of the Catholic Church, Vietnamese leaders have not allowed or officially invited the latter to visit their country.

So far, only some Vatican officials, such as Cardinal Fernando Filoni, Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and his predecessor Cardinal Ivan Dias, have traveled to Vietnam.

Pope John — and now Saint — John Paul II, who canonized 117 Vietnamese martyrs in 1988 and chose a Vietnamese priest to be one of his two secretaries, expressed his desire to visit the country. But, the Polish Pope, who traveled to 129 territories/countries during his 27-year papacy and died in 2005, could not realize his wish.

Had he been invited by the Vietnamese government, Pope Benedict could have visited to the country in January 2011, when the local Church celebrated the close of a jubilee year that marked the 350th anniversary of the creation of the first two dioceses and the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Church hierarchy in the country. Vietnamese bishops wanted the Pontiff to come for that special occasion.

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis, who has already toured three Asian countries — South Korea in 2014 and Sri Lanka and  Philippines in 2015 — and who pays a special attention to this vast and populous continent, would love a journey to Vietnam, should Hanoi extend an invitation.

As the establishment of diplomatic ties is not imminent, a papal visit to the Southeast Asian nation remains a distant prospect.

However, if it is truly committed to its independent foreign policy that strongly focuses on diversification and multilateralization, sooner or later Hanoi will — or should — normalize diplomatic ties with the Vatican.

With an area of only half km square and a population of under 1000 persons, mostly clerics, the Vatican is a tiny ‘state’, without any economic or military power. Yet, with about 1.3 billion members the Catholic Church has significant global influence.

That Pope Francis played a central role in helping Cuba and the US, the two former archenemies, normalize their ties is an example. The Pope could play such a key role mainly because of good ties between the Holy See and Havana. After he took power in 1959,  Fidel Castro, who died a few days ago, did not cut off diplomatic ties with the Holy See. The communist island has already welcomed three Roman Pontiffs — John Paul II in 1998, Benedict in 2012 and Francis in 2015.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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