Time is Greater than Space. The Holy See diplomacy and the “Vietnamese lesson”

Tuesday, 24 October 2023

by Victor Gaetan

(In the decade 1965-1975, between 790,000 and 1.14 million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers died as a result of war while the US military suffered over 58,000 casualties. Between 1963-1973, the US dropped about 4 million tons of devastating napalm bombs on rural areas in South Vietnam; 2 million tons on Laos; and half a million tons on Cambodia. In contrast, 32,357 tons of napalm was used against Korea over three years and 16,500 tons were dropped on Japan in 1945)

Rome (Fides News Agency) Relations between the Holy See and Vietnam are a great example of one of Pope Francis’s four guiding principles for building peace: Time is greater than space (Evangelii Gaudium para. 222-223; Lumen Fidei no. 57; Laudato Si, para. 178; Amoris Laetitia, para 3, 261).

At first, the rule of thumb seems vague. By reflecting on the Holy See’s step-by-step process of building trust with the government of Hanoi, however, we see how relevant and operational the advice is. It’s an approach Vatican diplomats have used for centuries, but Francis frames it in a way that nations, missionaries, and lay believers can benefit.

We also see in Vietnam a contrast between Vatican objectives and secular power politics. Just as Rome is drawing closer to Hanoi, so is Washington D.C. working to bring the country into its orbit, especially through arms sales and a new “strategic partnership.” The timing might be the same, but the goals could not be more different.

Positive impact
Last July, the Holy Father met at the Apostolic Palace with Vietnam’s President Vo Văn Thưởng and Vienam and Holy See signed a landmark agreement allowing a papal representative to live in country—for the first time since 1975.

The positive impact was immediate: President Vo made his first visit to the headquarters of Catholic bishops on August 7 (in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon), thanking the hierarchy for the Church’s charitable work, pandemic prevention, and spreading a humanitarian message. Local media reported that the president said he would consider allowing the Church to run educational institutions in addition to the nursery programs currently under Catholic care.

Although some Vietnamese priests around the world are skeptical that the agreement will result in dramatic improvements—especially at the local level and in rural areas, believers are often harassed and Communist officials refuse permits for Church buildings—the Vatican will have an immediate channel for dialogue with the government.

The Rome-Hanoi agreement is rooted in decades of persistent, quiet diplomacy.

Timeline of Trust Building
After the People’s Army took power in Saigon (capitol of South Vietnam at the time) and reunified the country in 1975, no priests were ordained between 1976 and 1990, but athe¬ism couldn’t eliminate the faith of millions of devoted catholics. In 1989, Pope John Paul II sent Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to visit Hanoi and establish parameters for cooperation with the government.

Gradually, local Church groups reemerged. The Daughters of Mary Im¬maculate started a small health clinic in an ad hoc motherhouse in 1992; they expanded the clinic when the government returned their expropriated convent. Over the next fourteen years, Vatican delegations visited Vietnam some twelve times.

When Undersecretary of State for Relations with States Pietro Parolin led a delegation there in 2004, the group was allowed to visit the country’s largest diocese, Xuan Loc (where over 30 percent of the people are Catholic), for the first time in almost 30 years. As a result of years of discussion, prior visits, and, most important, the reality of Catholic Vietnamese communities as indisput¬ably law abiding, the government was sufficiently convinced that Catholics weren’t a destabilizing force.

On the contrary, as Parolin told local reporters at the time, the Church “asks only to be able to exercise its mission freely, placing itself at the service of the country and its people.” A year later, the government approved a new ordinance on religion, allowing the Church to implement charitable activities. It also agreed to let the Hanoi seminary expand and enroll annual classes.

By 2010, the Vietnam–Holy See Joint Working Group agreed that the pope would appoint a nonresident representative to Vietnam, allowing a bilateral relationship just short of full recognition. Eventually the government agreed to a hybrid plan for the selection of bishops, allowing local bishops in consultation with the government to compile a list of three candidates submitted to Rome, which announces the bishop’s appointment. The main problem emerged when, on occasion, vacancies languished as the government simply failed to act.

Improved Conditions, in Time
Overall, this diplomacy of patience with Vietnam has paid off. The Church continues to grow in membership, vocations, and the number of schools it manages. New churches are built, even in remote mountainous regions, financed mainly by parishioners.

The Church collaborates well with Vietnam’s largest religion, Buddhism, especially in caring for terminal patients and other charitable work. Meanwhile, political activism is the domain of lay Catholics: the faithful push the envelope with demonstra-tions against corruption, restricted freedom of speech, and environmental mismanagement.

What we see over the course of some 35 years is how the Holy See, acting both with, and on behalf of, local bishops and priests, built a relationship with a hostile government step-by-step—through a dialogue that did not try to minimize differences between the two but found certain concrete points of understanding. When Francis promotes a culture of encounter, he is suggesting a process through which people, in good faith, can share ideas and find agreement without losing or giving up their own identity.

Time unfolds. A relationship grows. Common objectives are discovered. Progress is made, but no one should be “obsessed with immediate results,” Francis warns in Evangelii Gaudium (para. 223). He continues, “Giving priority to time means being concerned about initiating processes rather than possessing spaces.”

A theological dimension enhances the Church’s commitment to this approach: By starting a process of reconciliation, the Holy Spirit can step in to complete it. This lesson is applicable in individual lives as it is on the international plane.

Dominating Space, and Weapon Sales
Meanwhile, secular governments tend to focus on space at any moment because they are concerned to dominate situations. As Francis writes, “Giving priority to space means madly…trying to possess all the spaces of power and of self-assertion” (Evangelii Gaudium, para. 223)

Vietnam again provides an interesting example. Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden visited Hanoi where the two governments announced a new strategic partnership. According to major media sources including Reuters and the Washington Post, the US hopes to sell billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to Vietnam, including a fleet of F-16 fighter jets—despite the fact that Vietnam has sourced about 80% if its military arsenal from Russia.

Why is the U.S. keen to make this huge sale (at a time when Lockheed Martin, the corporation that makes F-16s, has a major backlog of orders)? Most experts say it’s because the U.S. wants to break up historical relationships between Vietnam and China, as well as between Vietnam and Russia.

One other reason is given by OJ Sanchez, vice president of Lockheed's F-16 and F-22 programs: “We're working our way through that initial portion of the ramp this year and then we'll continue to increase that up to four-per-month deliveries by the end of 2025,” he told Defense One on the sidelines of an Air, Space & Cyber conference.

Lockheed expects to deliver between six and eight new F-16s this year to various customers. Then “each year there'll be a subsequent step up” until the company reaches a 48-per-year cadence. The company delivered the first of its new F-16 Block 70 fighter jets to Bahrain in March. Lockheed is also expanding its F-16 infrastructure in Europe. The company announced in August it will open a European F-16 Training Center in Romania, which already has 17 F16s.

But this strategy ignores a defensive outlook maintained by Hanoi. Known as the “Four Nos” strategy, asserted first in 1998 and affirmed in 2019, Vietnam has pledged to itself: no military alliances; no siding with one country against another; no foreign military bases on its territory; and no using force in international relations.

Ian Storey, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore was recently quoted in the New York Times saying, "I feel in some ways that America has unrealistic expectations in Vietnam. I am not sure that they fully understand how sensitive Vietnam's relationship with China is and how deep their relationship with Russia is. Misunderstanding these things could get America burned."

Times Unveils Secrets
Another benefit of respecting time’s passage is that we eventually learn things that can change our perceptions of reality—often, painful new information.

The United States re-established diplomatic relations with Vietnam in 1995, which raises the question: What was the point of the war in Vietnam? A Vietnamese priest offers a theory: “I can’t blame the US. It looks out for its own interests. They sacrificed Vietnam for diplomacy with China.” Indeed, President Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing in 1972 preceded the US abandonment of Vietnam by just three years. But startling new research explains how the United States made fatal errors long before the geo-political shift.

One shocking revelation is how the US helped place in power—then assassinated—Catholic president President Ngo Dinh Diệm and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.

Diem was a devout Catholic, whose family moved from north to south Vietnam in the 1950s. He stood against Communism as well as French colonialism. He respected Buddhism and saw its potential for reinvigorating Vietnamese identity, especially in the country, against Communist propaganda.

A 2015 book by Geoffrey Shaw is an eyeopener: The Lost Mandate of Heaven: The American betrayal of Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam (Ignatius Press, 2015) with an introduction by Jesuit scholar James V. Schall, SJ. It traces how Diệm spent two years in the early 1950s visiting the United States, hosted at Maryknoll monasteries. An American cardinal introduced Diệm to the political elite.

Washington helped Diem become president in 1955. As the author explains, however, “The very qualities they admired in Diem would later lead their [US] government into conflict with him.”

Diem knew village life well, as a former administrator. He knew Communist ideology had become deeply rooted in his country, so he was a tough guy when it came to eliminating it. Meanwhile, the Kennedy Administration pressured him to be “more democratic.” When he opposed expanding the US military presence fearing loss of sovereignty, they assassinated him and his brother in a macabre way, the book argues compellingly.

By murdering Diệm, who was respected even by Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader, the US dug its own grave. No one could defeat Communism once Diệm was gone, Shaw argues convincingly.

When he learned that Diệm had been assassinated, Hồ Chí Minh, reportedly said, "I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid."

The North Vietnamese politburo went further, “The consequences of the coup d'état will be contrary to the calculations of the US imperialists,” it recorded. “Diệm was one of the strongest individuals resisting the people and Communism.”

More of the Same
Preoccupied exclusively with short term analysis and dominating space, one major secular power continues to rationalize military competition and political intervention as opposed to dialogue and diplomacy.

Let’s pray that longer views, greater reflection, and respect for peace begin entering the calculus. (Fides News Agency, 24/10/2023)