Acton Commentary

Corruption, Communism, and Catholicism in Vietnam


This year marks the 20th anniversary of Communism’s defeat in Central-East Europe. As many remember the tumbling of Communist regimes in countries such as Poland, East Germany, and Hungary, others will recall Marxism’s terrible legacy: millions of dead and tortured, “reeducation” and labor camps, show-trials, unparalleled economic destruction, and the worst environmental devastation in history.

As the recently deceased ex-Marxist philosopher Leszek Kolakowski concluded in his magisterial multi-volume Main Currents of Marxism, this was not accidental. It was Marxist philosophy’s logical outcome. By definition, no political program built upon an explicitly materialist viewpoint can consider itself limited by the idea of an innate human dignity, or anything suggesting a more-than-flesh-and-blood dimension to human life.

This is one reason why Marxist regimes are invariably hostile to religious belief. Another is the fact that some religions – such as Christianity – embody the insistence that there are inherent limits to state power, including that exercised by the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” To accept the notion of religious liberty, grounded in the duty of all people to seek the truth, is to accept the limited state. And that is something that no Communist government can ever truly acknowledge.

Thus it was no coincidence that the Soviet regime fiercely persecuted the Orthodox Church within the U.S.S.R. between 1920 and 1940, executing literally thousands of clergy. Nor was it by chance that the Catholic Church throughout post-war Communist Central-East Europe felt the weight of state oppression, with thousands of priests and nuns arrested, tortured, and occasionally executed, while practicing believers were driven to the margins of life.

It would be nice if this were all history, but if we ever needed proof that Communist regimes don’t change their stripes, one need only look at the little-reported but growing confrontation between the Catholic Church in Vietnam and Vietnam’s Communist authorities.

There are about 6 million Catholics in Vietnam today (about 8 percent of the population). They are the biggest religious minority in a nation which has been ruled in its entirety by a Communist government since 1975. Like all Communist regimes, Vietnam had its “re-education” camps. The regime has also long harassed the Catholic Church. There is no greater symbol of this than the late Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan, widely regarded as a modern saint. Before exiling him, the regime imprisoned him for 13 years, nine of which were spent in solitary confinement.

Some of the reasons for this treatment of Vietnam’s Catholic Church are historical. Vietnam’s rulers are acutely aware that Catholics were among the most committed anti-Communist Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. Many Vietnamese also identified Catholicism with French colonial rule.

This background, however, is of marginal significance in explaining the violent crackdown presently being experienced by Catholics throughout Vietnam. Put simply, it’s about government corruption.

As Vietnam’s Catholic bishops wrote in 2008, corruption is a huge problem in Vietnam. This is true of any country where the state is not constrained by the rule of law and the primary incentives for economic gain lie in taking others’ property rather than creating wealth through entrepreneurship. Vietnam, however, is listed by Transparency International as one of the world’s most corrupt countries.

The most recent self-enrichment scheme of Vietnam’s Communist political class has been to “requisition” peasants’ land which they then re-sell to the highest bidder, while quietly taking their “cut” of the action. The Church has long taken the peasants’ side in these matters. The bishops’ statement of last year insisted that private property rights must be respected.

Now Church property is increasingly the target. In late 2008, for example, Vinh Long provincial officials announced their intention to “appropriate” the land of a convent of nuns which also functioned as an orphanage in order to build a hotel. More recently, land in Hanoi that the government itself acknowledges has been owned by a Catholic monastery since 1928 was simply given over by the state for residential construction.

These stories are replicated all over Vietnam. In response, thousands of Catholics have mounted peaceful public protests for almost a year. As Amnesty International reports, the state’s reply has been intimidation and violence. Lay Catholics have been denounced in typical Marxist terms as “counter-revolutionaries”, arrested, and subjected to show-trials. Nuns and priests have been savagely beaten by police and “counter-demonstrators”. One woman told Amnesty, “they shout bad words about our mothers and fathers, and say things like ‘kill the archbishop’ and ‘kill the priests.’”

Vietnam is a country where Marxism, aptly described by Kolakowski as “the greatest fantasy of our century,” has once again been exposed as nothing more than a useful cover for a corrupt political class to maintain its power and live at everyone else’s expense. And, once again, Christians and the cause of religious liberty are paying the price.