I am getting to the last volume of a Catholic periodical from South Vietnam, and it includes news items about a three-and-a-half-week training on translating the Bible. It was held during Mach 1974 in Dalat and at the Alliance Evangelical Center (Trung Tâm Tin Lành Alliance), commonly known as the Villa Alliance at the time.
There were nearly fifty participants, including “quite many” Protestant ministers plus lay members from a host of denominations. There were also thirteen Catholic priests, both diocesan and religious, and two lay Catholics from the ethnic minorities. Some of the participants spoke the languages or dialects among ethnic minorities. There was also a Protestant delegation from Laos. Directing the training were nine scholars from the United Bible Societies, including Swiss, British, French, and Americans.
Reflecting contemporary Western and post-industrial division of weekdays and weekends, the training sessions were from Monday to Friday. (At that time, Vietnamese still worked or went to school on Saturday.) After breakfast was a fifteen-minute period of prayer led by either a Protestant or a Catholic. Three hours of studies followed in either English or French. After lunch, the afternoon included two hours of “practice” in small groups organized according to the translating language. Evenings typically included large group activities such as lectures, discussions, and films. Weekends were generally open but there were also some trips for sightseeing.
There was more about this event, but the larger point for me is the shifting relationship between Vietnamese Catholics and Protestants in the years following the Second Vatican Council. There had been meetings among them, especially during the annual “week of prayer for unity,” but they tended to be brief. There were also a few conferences between the two sides, plus inter-religious events among Buddhists, Catholics, and Protestants. While the training event was probably the most extensive in terms of commitment and time, it reflected the closer relationship between Catholics and Protestants during the 1960s and 1970s.
It is impossible to know how much further this relationship would have evolved had the Republic of Vietnam existed beyond 1975, but the conditions looked to be promising. On the global scale, especially in Western Europe and North America, Catholic-Protestant relations had already begun to improve well before Vatican II. In Vietnam, relations were never terrible because Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, was relatively young while Christians were decidedly a minority among the general population. Although there were problems between Vietnamese Catholics and Protestants, they were nowhere as bad as it was the case in Western countries.
Why, then, did Catholics and Protestants in Vietnam not collaborate sooner? I suspect that differences in doctrine, history, and membership conspired to keep them apart for the most part until the 1960s. Eric Jennings’ monograph on colonial Dalat, for instance, includes a chapter (which, delightfully, is entitled “Divine Dalat”) that tells us that there was a good deal of competition between Catholic and Protestant missionaries for converts among the ethnic minorities during the 1950s.
But there were commonalities, including, again, the commonality that Catholics were a minority and Protestants even a much smaller minority in the Vietnamese religious landscape, that kept their conflicts and problems from worsening into utter inhospitality. At least, it is my reading of limited sources I’ve seen thus far.
There is also the interesting fact that Dalat, which had a sizable Catholic population for much of its colonial history, saw a Protestant influx during late colonialism due to the expansion of American missionaries. In 1928, members of the US-based Christian and Missionary Alliance, with monetary contributions from Americans and Canadians, bought a property in the city and established the Dalat School for school-age children of missionaries so they wouldn’t need to go back to North America for schooling. The growth of the school in the next two decades reflected the growing number of American missionaries from a little over thirty in 1942 to nearly one hundred ten years later. In between was the construction of the Villa Alliance on (I believe) the same property. According to Jennings, the Dalat press of the Alliance also churned out a large amount of print materials during this time: brochures, pamphlets, magazines, and, likely, Bibles.
I’d suspect that no one at the time could have foreseen a sizable Catholic presence at the Villa participating in the training conference on Bible translation almost three decades later. There is still a lot that we don’t know about Catholic-Protestant relations in South Vietnam, even before. But it isn’t implausible to conceptualize them, broadly speaking, to have moved from some level of competition for converts under French colonialism to growing collaboration on different matters during the last years of the Republic of Vietnam.
Note: The Dalat School still existed, albeit in Malaysia. It was relocated to the Cameron Highlands in the late 1960s, then to Penang. It is now known as the Dalat International School. As for the Alliance property, it was apparently confiscated by the postwar state and has been used as a site of political training for government administrators.