A Journey Through Time: The Rise of Catholicism in Vietnam

A Journey Through Time: The Rise of Catholicism in Vietnam
Graphic: Luat Khoa Magazine.

Vo Van Quan wrote this article in Vietnamese, which was published in Luat Khoa Magazine on July 26, 2020. Lee Nguyen translated the article into English.

Roman Catholicism in Vietnam can be traced back to the 16th century when Spanish members of the Franciscan order and Dominicans from Malacca, or the Philippines, began evangelizing the country. However, their missionary activities were not formally organized or frequent during this period.

It was not until the early 17th century that missionary activities in Vietnam began to take on a more organized and systematic nature under the standards of the Vatican. During this period, religious personnel and resident representatives gradually stabilized under the guidance of Jesuit missionaries. The earliest established mission in Vietnam was in Cochinchina in 1615, followed by Tonkin in 1626. [1]

After 20 years of activity in both regions, Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit missionary well-known to many Vietnamese people,  proposed to the Vatican the establishment of an official church, complete with organizational structure and local personnel.

Portrait of Alexandre de Rhodes and the front page of his book, "Cathechismus in Octo Dies Divisus." Photo: BnF Gallica.

Before 1945: Conflicts with Feudal Authorities

From the 17th to the 19th century, the Catholic Church and French-influenced missionary societies in Vietnam significantly impacted the country's political situation and foreign policies.

The most friendly period for the Catholic Church, but also the shortest, was during the reign of Emperor Quang Trung (1753 - 1792). [2]

During this time, some close counsellors among the nine-rank officials–the highest-ranking government officials at that time, similar to the "Mandarins" in China–were Catholics. With his strategic vision for the region, Quang Trung showed a certain level of support for the Catholic history of the Catholic Church population.

After his death, the Tây Sơn dynasty also tried to leverage its relationship with the Church and its missionaries to dissuade the French from supporting the leader of the Đàng Trong (Inner Realm), Nguyen Phuc Anh.

However, history shows that they were unsuccessful. After the fall of the Tây Sơn dynasty, the last dynasty of Vietnam, the Nguyễn dynasty (1802-1945) exhibited a hostile attitude towards Catholics. The Catholic Church in Vietnam, as well as Vietnamese historians, recorded the brutal suppression of Catholic followers from 1820-1883, often known as the Lệnh Bách Đạo (Order to suppress Catholics). [3] [4] Among those orders, a series of edicts were issued, the most ruthless being the 1839 Kỷ Hợi Edict, which explicitly stated:

"Let us arrest and beat without mercy. Let us torture. Let us order the execution of all who refuse to trample on pictures of the Cross. Let us know that refusing to trample on the pictures is rebellion. There is no need for a trial; let us take swords, hammers, spears, anything at your hands to exterminate the blinded and stubborn. Do not let any of them escape…."

Today, almost all Vietnamese Catholics are aware of the 117 individuals who were canonized as saints and semi-saints by the Church for their martyrdom – those who chose to die rather than renounce their faith during the rule of the Nguyen dynasty. [5]

Undoubtedly, no one can use the oppression of Catholics, or any reason, to justify the French colonial invasion and occupation of Vietnam. However, the French likely employed the pretext of protecting Catholic believers and their clergy as one of their justifications for conquest. The way the French colonialists divided Vietnam into three regions after their occupation–Cochinchina (Nam Kỳ), Annam (Trung Kỳ), and Tonkin (Bắc Kỳ)–was partly influenced by the experience of dividing territories for missionary purposes.

From 1954 to 1975: The "Passage to Freedom" Migration

From the years of French colonial rule in Vietnam until the signing of the Geneva Accords in 1954, Catholicism developed quite naturally with the Vatican's support.

By 1954, after Vietnam was divided into the North and the South along the 17th parallel, a provision in the Accords allowed people to migrate freely between both regions depending on their political views and ideology.

While this provision aimed to grant people the freedom to settle where they chose, its implementation led to significant obstacles related to the development of the Catholic Church in the North because nearly half a million Catholic followers migrated to South Vietnam, constituting about two-thirds of the Catholic population at that time.

Cảnh người miền Bắc lên tàu di cư vào Nam trong chiến dịch "Sang phía tự do". Ảnh: LIFE.
Scene of people from the North boarding a ship headed to South Vietnam during "Operation: Passage to Freedom." Photo: LIFE.
Tổng thống Ngô Đình Diệm của Việt Nam Cộng hòa là một người Công giáo. Ảnh: Chưa rõ nguồn.
President Ngo Dinh Diem of the Republic of Vietnam was a Catholic. Photo: unknown source.

In the South, this migration was not entirely smooth. Absorbing a large number of migrants with different cultures and religions in a short period created political conflicts in South Vietnam, which later escalated.

In North Vietnam, as soon as the Communist government took control, the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) did not hesitate to use Marxist ideology to address religious issues openly.

The general doctrine of Communist ideology, or socialism, viewed religion as the root of evil, irrational, and an exploitation tool of capitalism, imperialism, and colonialism. The ultimate goal of Communism was the complete elimination of religion. [6]

Nevertheless, Ho Chi Minh was astute and politically sensitive enough to understand that such unrealistic goals were not feasible in Vietnam, especially with the development of the Catholic community in the North.

Therefore, one of the policies he hoped would succeed in religious management post-1954 was establishing a state-owned or state-managed Catholic Church, or at least one with a "patriotic" nature similar to the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA). [7]

In 1955, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam funded and founded the Assembly of Vietnamese Catholic Representatives. This was one of the most prominent efforts by the Northern government to combat Catholicism, along with the establishment of the Liaison Committee of Catholics for Patriotism and Peace. However, despite financial support from the government, most Catholic followers did not recognize the legitimacy of these organizations.

Furthermore, the VCP introduced some basic policies to convince followers of religions, in general, and Catholicism, in particular, that they also respected the freedom of religion and belief.

On June 14, 1955, Executive Order No. 234 on religion was issued by Ho Chi Minh, protecting the freedom of religion and the right to proselytize. A portion of land and religious education schools were allowed to be maintained. Most surprising was Article 13, which prohibited state interference in the internal affairs of religious organizations, with a commitment that the relationship between the Catholic Church in Vietnam and the Vatican was a matter solely for that religion. [8]

These actions were, in reality, hopeless attempts to retain the Catholic followers in the North from joining "Operation Passage to Freedom," a campaign conducted by the United States and France following the Geneva Accords. However, as mentioned earlier, these efforts failed, as evidenced by the half a million Catholics who migrated to the South.

The concerns of the migrants were not baseless.

Despite the legal commitments made by the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the Catholic Church in North Vietnam continued to face harassment and oppression from the state during the 20 years of civil war.

Some notable government actions include the expulsion of foreign missionary groups, the severing of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, the restricting and creating difficulties for the appointment and transfer of bishops, the isolating of clergy from regional bishops, and the isolating of bishops from higher ranking members of the Church outside of North Vietnam. More seriously, religious activists and influential religious leaders were arrested. Catholic followers also faced discrimination, as the government did not allow them access to many public services or to serve in public agencies, making them akin to second-class citizens. [9]

By 1975, the Catholic Church in North Vietnam was almost totally destroyed. Apart from the 500,000 migrants in 1954, very few people dared to identify as Catholics, with religious activities being replaced by compulsory agricultural work. The number of 370 clergy and monks recorded in 1955 had decreased to 277, most elderly and no longer lucid. As a result, many churches became ill-maintained and unusable. [10] [11]

Nevertheless, the Catholic Church in North Vietnam still managed to survive and was not entirely eradicated. However, it is difficult to imagine how long the Church could have endured if the two regions were not unified after the war ended in April 1975.

In the South, the preferential policies that the Republic of Vietnam advanced to Catholic migrants while helping the development of this religion also contributed to increasing political and social conflicts. However, South Vietnam’s treatment of Catholic migrants was somewhat biased, which led to the steady and harmonious development of Catholicism from 1954 to 1975.

Bộ đội Bắc Việt đạp xe trước nhà thờ Đức Bà ở Sài Gòn sau ngày 30/4/1975. Ảnh: Chưa rõ nguồn.
North Vietnamese soldiers cycled in front of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon after April 30, 1975. Photo: unknown source.
Bộ đội Bắc Việt gác trước cửa nhà thờ Đức Bà ở Sài Gòn ngày 30/4/1975. Ảnh: Chưa rõ nguồn.
North Vietnamese soldiers standing guard in front of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon after April 30, 1975. Photo: unknown source.

After 1975: Retreat and Advance

1975 marked a challenging milestone for both Catholicism and Protestantism in Vietnam.

The VCP and the new government across unified Vietnam still maintained an unchanged perspective on Christianity. They still desired to destroy the infrastructure and superstructure of these religious organizations.

On the other hand, the faithful and clergy could find a glimmer of hope in the Gospel because, for the first time in over 20 years of division, the Catholic Church in Vietnam had the opportunity to operate with the restored connection between the North and the South. This reconnection also led to the revival of the Catholic community in the North. This became evident because the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Vietnam became fully organized in 1980 and has become an annual activity since then.

However, the churches under Christian denominations faced considerable government pressure after 1975, as the Communist government's influence significantly impacted the survival of these religious organizations.

On the surface, Resolution No. 297-CP of the Council of Government in 1977 indicated that the state continued recognizing freedom of belief and religion. However, the VCP simultaneously imposed strict controls, including nationalization and the requisition of land from numerous religious establishments, healthcare facilities, and educational institutions owned by churches. [12]

Conflicts related to land disputes between Ho Chi Minh City authorities and the residents of Lộc Hưng Vegetable Garden in 2019 are among the most recent and typical examples. Likewise, similar events also occurred in other localities in the country. One example is the Ho Chi Minh City University of Law in Binh Trieu, Ho Chi Minh City, which was built on land that once belonged to the Catholic Church in Vietnam. [13]

Additionally, the Vietnamese state demanded the right to intervene in approving, appointing, and transferring religious dignities within the Catholic Church in Vietnam. The most notable case occurred in 1975 when the government prevented Archbishop Nguyen Van Thuan from assuming office in the diocese of Ho Chi Minh City. He was later arrested and extrajudicially imprisoned for 13 years before being expelled from the country in 1989. [14]

Another instance of government meddling happened in the 1990s when the government prevented Bishop Huynh Van Nghi from accepting the position of archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City as a replacement for Archbishop Nguyen Van Binh. [15]

Furthermore, over 200 Catholic dignitaries were arrested and detained in reeducation camps in South Vietnam after 1975. As a result of continued government oppression, hundreds of thousands of Catholic followers decided to seek refuge in the United States and other countries. [16]

Một cảnh hành lễ tại nhà thờ Lớn Hà Nội. Ảnh: vietfuntravel.com.vn.
A religious ceremony at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Nha Trang. Photo: vietfuntravel.com.vn.
Một lễ hiệp thông cầu nguyện và đòi hỏi tự do tôn giáo tại nhà thờ giáo xứ Thái Hà, Hà Nội. Ảnh: Chưa rõ nguồn.
A communion and prayer ceremony demanding religious freedom at Thai Ha Parish Church in Hanoi. Photo: unknown source.

The Continued Survival of the Catholic Church

The Catholic Church in Vietnam continues to survive due to three factors: (1) the clever diplomatic skills of local church leaders, (2) the loyalty of the laity to the mainstream Church, and (3) the fortune of history.

Immediately after the fall of the Saigon government, the archbishops of the two most crucial regions in South Vietnam, Hue and Saigon, promptly demonstrated their crisis management and resolution capabilities.

On April 1, 1975, when Hue fell under Communist control, the archbishop of Hue, Nguyen Kim Dien, quickly sent a letter to the faithful, advising them to thank God that the war had ended. Additionally, he urged the faithful to cooperate with the new government to build a peaceful, just, and prosperous nation.

Eight days later, addressing the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, Archbishop Nguyen Kim Dien emphasized that the Church was ready to cooperate with the new government to build a free and independent society. On the other hand, he called for religious freedom and urged Catholic followers to fulfill their obligations to their country while maintaining their faith and duty to God.

The archbishop of Saigon, Nguyen Van Binh, took a similar approach. In addition to reminding the laity to comply with the requirements of the Communist government, he emphasized that they should not forget their responsibilities and connection to the Church, the Holy See, and the Pope. The actions of Church leaders in significant dioceses in the South were seen as an effort to prevent the formation of an "independent–patriotic" church similar to  China.

The Church's willingness to make some concessions early on prevented the new Communist government from having a reason to "chase away and eradicate" Christianity in Vietnam. Meanwhile, the vision of Archbishop Nguyen Van Binh helped the laity mentally prepare for the period of transition that followed the war.

This was evident in 1983 when the Vietnamese Communist Party attempted establishing the Committee for the Unification of Patriotic Catholics. This Catholic organization was independent of the Holy See, similar to what they did in the North in 1955. However, the plan failed in the face of the Church's long-standing preparation and the laity's unwavering trust in their local Catholic leaders. The evidence is that to this day, the Catholic Church in Vietnam continues to exist independently and in communion with the Holy See.

A series of international events in the late 1980s and early 1990s left the VCP completely lacking in both financial resources and political support to continue general political and religious suppression. Meanwhile, the number of Catholic believers and parishes grew in Vietnam.

Today, the Vietnamese government and the Communist Party are forced to undertake specific advances to maintain their national image before the international community to promote economic growth and maintain political and social stability.

As a result, the Vietnamese state's approach to religious organizations, in general, and the Catholic Church, in particular, has become somewhat more flexible and less aggressive. However, the experience of religious suppression by the Catholic Church over many decades has left religious leaders and believers with the mindset that the current government has never been satisfied with the existence of organizations that are "political, professional, social and spiritual” beyond their control.

While there are still incidents of civil disobedience in many contemporary Catholic parishes, notably those affected by the 2016 Formosa environmental disaster in Ha Tinh Province, the history of confrontation and the political role of the Catholic Church in Vietnam continues to persist.


1. Peter C. Phan (2014) Christianity in Vietnam today (1975–2013): contemporary challenges and opportunities, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, 14:1, 3-21, DOI: 10.1080/1474225X.2014.882706

2. Dutton, G. E. (2006). The Tay Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam, p. 190. University of Hawaii Press.

3. Giuse Trần Quốc Thịnh. (n.d.). Các cuộc bắt đạo của Vua Minh Mạng. Retrieved December 4, 2023, from http://www.lasan.org/lasan-vietnam/KyYeu02-03/Luan_van/Giao_su/Batdao_Minhmang.htm?ref=luatkhoa.com

4. Ngo Lan Anh. (2016). Nguyen-Catholic History (1770s-1890s) and the gestation of Vietnamese catholic national identity (Doctoral dissertation, Georgetown University).

5. Danh sách 117 vị thánh tử đạo tại Việt Nam. (2018, June 24). Trung Tâm Mục Vụ Dòng Chúa Cứu Thế. http://trungtammucvudcct.com/danh-sach-117-vi-thanh-tu-dao-tai-viet-nam/?hpag=3&ref=luatkhoa.com

6. Tôn giáo, thuốc phiện của nhân dân và sự phản kháng chống lại khốn cùng thực tại—Triết học. (2015, July 19). Triethoc.Edu.Vn. http://triethoc.edu.vn/vi/chuyen-de-triet-hoc/triet-hoc-ton-giao/ton-giao-thuoc-phien-cua-nhan-dan-va-su-phan-khang-chong-lai-khon-cung-thuc-tai_576.html?ref=luatkhoa.com

7. Nectar Gan. (2018, September 23). China’s state-sanctioned Catholic Church vows to remain ‘independent’ after Vatican deal. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/2165423/chinas-state-sanctioned-catholic-church-vows-remain-independent

8. Hồ Chí Minh. (1955). Sắc lệnh số 234/SL của Chủ Tịch nước: Sắc lệnh về bảo đảm quyền tự do tín ngưỡng. Chủ Tịch nước. http://vanban.chinhphu.vn/default.aspx?pageid=27160&docid=1097

9. J.B. An Dang. (2009, March 10). Bishop Dac Trong, the struggle of the Vietnamese Church under Communism. AsiaNews. https://www.asianews.it/news-en/Bishop-Dac-Trong,-the-struggle-of-the-Vietnamese-Church-under-Communism-16490.html?ref=luatkhoa.com

10. Catholics, Protestants and Christians in Vietnam. (2014, May). Facts and Details. https://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Vietnam/sub5_9d/entry-3378.html?ref=luatkhoa.com

11. See 1

12. Phạm Văn Đồng. (1977). Nghị quyết số 297-CP về một chính sách đối với tôn giáo do Hội đồng Chính phủ ban hành. Hội đồng Chính phủ. https://lawnet.vn/vb/Nghi-quyet-297-CP-chinh-sach-ton-giao-454B.html

13. Võ Văn Quản. (2019, January 15). Nước nào cũng có cưỡng chế, tại sao ở ta lại là vấn đề? Luật Khoa Tạp Chí. https://www.luatkhoa.com/2019/01/nuoc-nao-cung-co-cuong-che-tai-sao-o-ta-lai-la-van-de/

14. Lữ Giang. (2006, September 16). Tiểu Sử Đức Cố Hồng Y Phanxicô Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận. GIESU.NET. https://giesu.net/dhy-nguyen-van-thuan/

15. Catholics mourn the death of Mgr Van Nghi, defender of religious freedom in Vietnam. (2015, December 5). AsiaNews. https://www.asianews.it/news-en/Catholics-mourn-the-death-of-Mgr-Van-Nghi,-defender-of-religious-freedom-in-Vietnam-34220.html

16. Crossette, B. (1987, August 29). For Vietnam’s Catholic Church, a Modest Revival. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/1987/08/29/world/for-vietnam-s-catholic-church-a-modest-revival.html

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