Vietnamese Engagement with Global and Transnational Catholicism: New Directions in Scholarship

Association of Asian Studies, Annual Conference, Denver
March 22, 2019 @ 1:30 PM – 3:15 PM
Silver, Tower Bldg.; Mezzanine Level

  • Organizer & chair: Tuan Hoang, Pepperdine University
  • Presenter 1: Anh Tran, SJ, Santa Clara University
  • Presenter 2: Lan Ngo, SJ, Loyola Marymount University
  • Presenter 3: Claire Lien Tran, Institut de Recherche sur l’Asie du Sud-Est Contemporaine  (Thailand)
  • Presenter 4: Ngoc-Mai Phan, University of California, Berkeley
  • Discussant: Charles Keith, Michigan State University

Panel Abstract. Although Catholics have been a minority among Vietnamese, the history of Catholicism in Vietnam and the diaspora provides a fascinating window to study Vietnamese engagement with global and transnational currents and movements. In particular, Vietnamese engagement with global Catholicism has become the basis of many recent works by historians and scholars of religious studies. Having moved from nationalist and binary debates about missionaries, martyrs, and their relationship to colonialism, the new scholarship emphasizes instead the agency of Vietnamese Catholics; their interactions with ideas and organizations from other parts of the global Church; and, in the case of the diaspora, the transnational experience of adapting their Vietnamese religious legacy to meet new realities. 

This panel presents a sample of the thematic and topical richness in this scholarship. The first pair of presenters—Anh Tran on early Catholic developments of orthography in the modern script and Lan Ngo on an ecclesial document about clergy formation—work from the fields of linguistics and intellectual history to interpret the Catholic experience before the twentieth century. The next two presenters—Claire Lien Tran on a young worker’s movement and Ngoc-Mai Phan on a devotional youth movement—present studies of Catholic organizations that originated in Europe but became fully developed in Vietnam and turned into an important transnational and ethnoreligious institution in the diaspora for Catholic refugees and immigrants and their children. Along with commentary from a leading historian of Vietnamese Catholicism, these papers offer several dynamic and multifocal approaches to conceptualize this important subject. 

1. Anh Tran, Catholicism and the Orthography of Quốc Ngữ, 1631-1900

In 2017, the Vietnamese linguist Bùi Hiền proposed a number of changes in the orthography of Quốc Ngữ, the alphabetized “national script.” His proposal quickly led to an angry and formidable resistance from people in Vietnam and the diaspora. Any interpretation of this reaction should consider the early usage of Quốc Ngữ, when its orthography was fixed by the publications of various dictionaries. The widespread usage of Quốc Ngữ to improve literacy in the twentieth century is undeniable, but the inconsistencies in its orthography and spelling have prompted many proposals to revise and standardize it. However, the early influence of Portuguese and Italian spellings on the script remains so strong that attempts to change have met resistance as did Bùi Hiền’s. 

This paper analyzes the evolution of the orthography of Quốc Ngữ in the writings and publications of European Catholic missionaries and Vietnamese catechists, priests, and scholars. They include the works of Alexandre de Rhodes (1651), Jean-Louis Tabert (1838), and the lesser-known Quốc Ngữ writings from the seventeenth century to the late nineteenth century including the first Quốc Ngữ dictionary Đại Nam Quấc Âm Tự Vị of Huình Tịnh Của (1895). Since Quốc Ngữ began as a transcription of Vietnamese spoken language, its evolving orthography also reflects the changes in Vietnamese pronunciation. Any serious proposal of revising the Quốc Ngữ spelling must take into account this complex history, especially its usage among Vietnamese Catholics before its adoption as the standard mode of writing in the twentieth century. 

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Vietnamese priests in Tonkin ~ pc Wikimedia Commons

2. Lan Ngo, Three Facets of “Purity” in the Nineteenth-Century Formation of Vietnamese Catholic Clergy

This paper draws on the nineteenth-century manual of formation of local clergy, Công Đồng Tứ Xuyên (Synodo Sutchuense). It demonstrates that the concern over maintaining three forms of purity–cultural, doctrinal, and spiritual–led to two effects. First, it became the basic tenets of training for indigenous clergy; second, it served as the formative background for a group of Vietnamese Catholic national leaders. The hundred-page document has been considered a handbook of practical guides rather than a painstakingly thorough theological analysis of sacraments. It is not for general readership but is exclusively addressed to the local clergy. 

In my analysis, the nineteenth-century document fortuitously shows an intriguing convergence of three European traditions of purity that emerged in early modern Europe then had a direct bearing on the strong prophetic characteristic of Vietnamese Catholicism. These traditions are (a) an Iberian fear of being contaminated by the non-Christian world; (b) a Tridentine apprehension of straying from simple and clear catechetical orthodoxy and ritual purity; and (c) a French dévot spirituality of distrust toward the secular world. The proclivity toward a puritanical stance endowed Vietnamese converts with a sense of moral superiority and an inner strength, so that they could withstand the long history of on-again, off-again persecution. This prophetic mindset, however, also encouraged an anti-intellectual atmosphere and stifled the ability of the local Church to engage fully with the society at large.

3. Claire Lien Tran, The Emergence of Modern Militancy in the Vietnamese Catholic Church: Thanh niên Lao động Công giáo (Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne) in Northern Vietnam, 1935–1945

The 1930s could be considered as the peak of colonial French capitalism yet it was also marked by a strong economic crisis and the beginning of labor laws voted in France by the Popular Front. During this period, how was the Vietnamese Catholic Church affected by the social doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, especially the encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931)? And by the strong reformist movements of Social Catholicism in France, especially the Catholic Action movement that oriented lay Catholics to modern militancy within the society?

My paper deals with the circulation of ideas about Catholic social doctrine in Vietnam in the context of economic crisis and religious transformation. It explores the commitment among some Vietnamese Catholics to modern forms of militancy. For these Catholics, modern militancy was a means of leading Catholic youths to commit themselves to society within and beyond the strict limits of the Catholic community and its traditional notion of “good deeds.” I will highlight the role of a new generation of missionaries-priests and laymen as purveyors of a new Catholic modernity. In particular, I will examine the case of Thanh niên Lao động Công giáo (Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne) in Tonkin and the role of Nguyễn Mạnh Hà in Haiphong, the major harbor and industrial city in the north. These examples illustrate how Catholic engagement in modern militancy helped them sidestep the limits placed on political action by colonial rule.

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Eucharistic youths from St. Barbara Church in Little Saigon, Orange County. This chapter was founded in 1977. ~ pc tnttsb.org

4. Ngoc-Mai Phan, Understanding Vietnamese American Catholics: The Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement as an Ethnoreligious Organization

This paper explores the ethnoreligious characteristics of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement (VEYM, or Thiếu Nhi Thánh Thể in Vietnamese) among the first and second generations of Vietnamese American Catholics. With origins in Europe and colonial Indochina, VEYM was the most popular Catholic youth organization in South Vietnam before 1975. After the Vietnam War, Catholic refugees and immigrants successfully replicated this organization in the U.S., and it has 132 chapters and approximately 23,000 active members today. 

From research and interviews with VEYM adult youth leaders in San Diego and San Jose, I argue that this transnational and ethnoreligious organization offers a window to understand the experiences of Vietnamese Catholic communities in the United States. As part of the 1.5 and second generations of Vietnamese immigrants, the youth leaders were trained to combine ethnic identity and cultural memory to Catholic doctrines when guiding younger members on how to navigate the complexities of American society. My research expands upon Peter Phan’s scholarship, especially his argument that Vietnamese American Catholics have occupied a distinct “betwixt-and-between” position within both the American Catholic Church and the Vietnamese Church. I will analyze VEYM as a transnational space where Vietnamese American Catholics can cultivate relationships among their co-ethnics, build their religious faith as part of their identity in America, and learn about the sacrifices made by the earlier generations of Vietnamese Catholics.