Archbishop Marek Zalewski was named as RPR to Vietnam on Dec. 22 Photo: Agenzia Fides

Leading the way: The Holy See, diplomacy, and Vietnam

It would be an unprecedented turn if China learned from the Vietnamese experience

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Lan T. Chu

(ZENIT News – UCA News / Los Ángeles, 01.09.2024).- Nearly 50 years after the expulsion of the apostolic delegate from Vietnam, the Holy See and the Vietnamese state announced the establishment of a Resident Papal Representative (RPR) in Vietnam just before Christmas.

Archbishop Marek Zalewski was named as RPR to Vietnam on Dec. 22, three months after a bilateral statement was issued on Sept. 29, 2023. The agreement was signed following the visit of Vietnamese President Vo Van Thuong, who met Pope Francis and Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.

To be clear, the establishment of such an office is not equivalent to full, formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Vietnam (as that is only achieved with an Apostolic Nunciature).

In response to the RPR announcement, the state-run Vietnam News Agency reported that such an office “will help the state and the Church to ignore differences in history.” This perception by the state is perhaps one of the major remaining obstacles to establishing a nunciature.

The Vietnamese Church has a long and difficult history. Mutual trust and understanding are paramount to develop proper relations with the state.  Rather than ignoring differences, therefore, the state must acknowledge the difficult history and recognize the differences that prohibit a productive and peaceful future for Vietnam.

The appointment of bishops and cardinals may be another issue.  The Vietnamese Church’s working agreement with the state is as follows: in consultation with the Church, the Holy See presents a list of preferred candidates to the state.  From the state’s perspective, it provides its final approval for such appointments.

The Church, however, perceives such feedback as state recognition, not approval of the Church’s choices.  This working agreement has been in effect since at least the mid-1980s, which has allowed the Church to grow in Vietnam.

According to Canon Law, however, the nuncio plays a role in the appointment of bishops under the guidelines of the Holy See.  The Vietnamese state would need to further clarify and formalize the nuncio’s role beyond the working agreement, which is perhaps something it is not yet prepared to do.

Nevertheless, the establishment of an RPR does signify a marked advancement in the quality of the relationship between the two entities. Usually, military and economic resources are identified as the most important factors when assessing the strength of a state.

Yet, international politics of legitimacy and recognition are equally important for a state, if not more.  This is because relationships with other actors (local, regional, and international), all contribute to the workings of a state and serve as a bridge to the international community. Such a bridge is especially important in times of need and crisis.  This is a lesson Vietnam learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wider significance

The appointment of RPR in Vietnam is the result of the past 14 years of work that began with the «Vietnam-Vatican Joint Working Group» established in 2008.  The development has potentially far-reaching consequences within and beyond Vietnam’s borders and for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

On Dec. 11, 2023, four international scholars gathered for a discussion titled “Warming Trend of Vietnam-Vatican Relations” hosted by the Initiative for the Study of Asian Catholics.

This came in response to the July 27, 2023, announcement that the Office of an RPR would be established in Hanoi, bringing Vietnam closer to having full diplomatic relations with the Holy See.  The presence of an RPR signals more than just an advancement of Catholic life in Vietnam.

The international significance of the Holy See goes beyond its role as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, which has a global membership of 1.376 billion Catholics.  The Holy See is a formidable international actor. It is the only non-state actor that is a Permanent Observer at the United Nations and is the only sovereign actor that has had the longest tradition of global diplomatic initiatives (dating back to the 4th century).

As such, it can communicate the centuries of experiences of the Catholic Church to humanity and it has participated in or led meetings with state and non-state actors on issues of global significance such as nuclear proliferation, peace, and climate change.

Good Catholic, good citizen

Countries having bilateral relations with the Holy See are not necessarily prioritizing religion.  They may be looking to establish a public relationship with an international actor who is politically neutral, globally respected, and a proven mediator.

One need to only look at Pope John Paul II’s 2008 and 2012 visits to Havana, Cuba, which brought international attention to the small communist island, long ostracized by its democratic neighbors.  Mobilizing the language of human rights, then President Fidel Castro used the papal visit to condemn the United States embargo and speak to the broader international community.

Years later in 2014, it was the Holy See that mediated talks between the United States and Cuba, resulting in the opening of diplomatic relations and the release of American political prisoner Alan Gross who served 5 years of a 15-year sentence for espionage.  As in the case of Cuba, the Holy See’s relationships with political states go far beyond securing the interests of the Catholic community. The relationship is at once pastoral, political, and symbolic.

Historically, when it came to normalizing relations between the Holy See and Vietnam, the Vietnamese state and Catholic hierarchy operated under the framework of a “China first” policy.  Yet, years of dialogue regarding the Church’s presence, the role of Catholics, and the appointment of Church leadership have not threatened the authority of the Vietnamese Communist Party the way East-Central European Communists were in the 1990s before the collapse of communism.

Instead, the Church has used its resources to contribute to the betterment of Vietnamese society, which includes support services for the poor and other charitable activities.  At the core of the relationship between a universal religion such as Catholicism and a highly nationalist country such as Vietnam is the possibility that one could be “a good Catholic, and a good citizen.”

The intent of the Church’s pastoral mission, therefore, is not to politically undermine the stability of the Vietnamese state.  Quite the contrary, the Church has and would continue to provide much-needed resources to the Vietnamese people.  What we see then is not simply an opening of a religious office but an opportunity for the socioeconomic development of Vietnam’s citizens, and a historic opportunity for Vietnam to take the lead in Asia regarding international relations.

It would be an unprecedented turn if China learned from the Vietnamese experience that a relationship with the Holy See can only bring greater recognition and not the loss of sovereignty. If the Vietnamese Communist Party remains true to its claims of putting Vietnam first, the presence of the Holy See should not be of political concern.

It is unclear, however, what metric the Vietnamese Communist Party will utilize to ascertain the well-being of its people and the policies it will enact.



*Lan T. Chu is a professor of Diplomacy & World Affairs at Occidental College and her teaching interests focus on the political role of religious institutions, Church and global politics and international relations theory. 

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