Charles KEITH. Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012, pp. 312. ISBN 978-0-520-27247-7.
Reviewed by Anneris GORIS, La Esperanza Center, 502 West 165 Street, New York, NY 10032

This book is about how French colonial rule made possible the transformation of Catholic missions in Vietnam into broad and powerful structures in which race defined ecclesiastical and cultural prestige, control of resources, and institutional authority (p. 3). The author uses a variety of sources to document the experience of Catholics in Vietnam, namely records of French colonial and protectorate administration, Church documents, and Catholic religious bulletins, journals, newspapers, and pamphlets. The book begins with an account of three Catholic priests arrested and convicted for anti-French activities in Vietnam in 1909 . They belonged to a movement that recruited Vietnamese students to study in Japan in order to unite anticolonial forces and overthrow French rule. A letter from the Vietnamese clergy called on Catholics to “contribute by any means, labour or property, in the struggle… so as to show patriotism and love of the Lord.“ The case of the Vietnamese priests raises important questions about the French relationship with the Catholic community that was presented by colonial officials and missionaries as loyal subjects united across races and predisposed by faith to welcome French tutelage.

Chapter 1, “A Church between the Nguyen and the French,” provides information about Vietnamese Catholics and their geography distribution, explaining why some people became receptive to the new religion, and how in some areas, Catholic villages were crucial for community defense. However, as the author points out, race was not totally removed from Catholic life.

Chapter 2, entitled “A Colonial Church Divided,” describes a petition from a group of Catholics asking permission to return to Buddhism due to their subsequent poverty. According to an official, people had been forced to sign the petition, but under pressure the local bishop promised to examine the claim. Antagonism toward Catholicism, often exaggerated by missionaries, remained rife during the first few decades after French conquest and continued in a range of material, legal, and cultural conflicts between Catholics, the Vietnamese and the French officials (pp.55 & 56).

In chapter 3, “The Birth of a National Church,” the author describes how in 1960, during the Second Vatican Council, the formal structures of Vietnamese Catholic Church became totally independent from missionary authority. The change which came during a tumultuous time of cultural and political flux about by colonial rule, ushered in new ideas and new values. Vietnamese Church gained to have its own ordained bishops, and Vatican reforms generated excitement among clergy and concerns among missionaries (p.109).

The next chapter, “Vietnamese Catholic Tradition on Trial,”describes major shifts in print: the role of the printed word in the ritual lives of lay Catholics, in paraliturgical worship, and the widespread genre of martyr stories written by Vietnamese authors. Catholic newspapers and novels with Catholic themes appeared on the scene. This chapter also describes how Catholic schools began to prepare students for a changing world.

The experience of the National Church, the topic of chapter 5, was inseparable from global Catholicism . But, as the author explains in the following chapter, most Catholics felt the need to address how their minority status and their ties to the global Church affected their national identity; their anticommunism often sharpened their criticisms of French colonialism. Finally in the following chapter, “A National Church in Revolution and War, the author describes the polarizing effect of internal power struggles among the groups vying to shape their nation’s future; the upheavals of war ultimately divided Catholic communities, leaving a nascent Church with an uncertain future in a divided Vietnam (p.209).

Charles Keith provides ample documentation about the experience of Catholics in Vietnam, which ends with the image of thousands of Catholics migrating from north to south to preserve their religious freedom and seek better economic opportunities. The author cautions that being Catholic in colonial Vietnam was no different from other religious identities. But, for Catholics who stayed and supported the revolutionary government, the question remains about their place in the revolutionary transformation of the nation’s modern history (p.248).

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