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The Holy See and the government of Vietnam announced in a July 27 joint statement that the Vatican will now have a permanent residential representative in the country.

The announcement, hailed as “noteworthy progress” by both parties, marks the farthest the Vatican has come to establishing diplomatic ties with the Communist country, since the government of the reunited Vietnam broke off relations in 1975.

Phat diem Cathedral, Vietnam. Credit: Hoangvantoanajc/wikimedia. CC BY SA 3.0

The Holy See’s decades of patient diplomatic progress with the Vietnamese government have often been cited as a possible template for the Vatican’s approach to China, and especially the controversial 2018 deal granting Beijing a role in the appointment of bishops. 

But with the Vatican-China deal being publicly violated by Beijing, is the progress in Hanoi a reason for the Holy See to stay the course with China — or is it an example of a different, better approach?

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After national reunification at the end of the Vietnam War, the government cut ties with the Holy See and Catholic clergy and bishops were subject to considerable harassment and persecution, most notably Cardinal François-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận, who spent 13 years in prison and re-education camps, nine of them in solitary confinement.

The Church was seen by the government — which was (and remains) officially atheist — as politically subversive, and historically aligned with Vietnam’s former colonial power, France.

Since then, the Vatican has worked towards some kind of rapprochement with the government, accepting government limits on everything from the size and spread of parishes in the country to the appointment of bishops.

Starting from that basis, it is understandable why many would expect Vietnam to serve as a reasonable template for dealing with China, where the Church has encountered similar problems for decades.

The notion that the Holy See is running its Vietnam playbook, and hoping for a similar outcome, seems even more likely when one considers that, for decades, the Holy See’s Secretariat of State has had a deal with the government on the appointment of bishops — with Rome drawing up a shortlist of three acceptable candidates from which the government can informally choose before the pope made the appointment.

A key architect of the Vatican’s patient, and often pragmatic, diplomatic strategy with Hanoi is also, of course, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the current Secretary of State.

But if the similarities between China and Vietnam for Vatican diplomats are clear enough, there are equally important differences which make it far from certain the same plan will work twice — and so far the signs are getting less, not more promising.

Basilica of Notre Dame, Ho Chi Minh City. Credit: Diego Delso/wikimedia. CC BY SA 3.0

One key difference between Vatican relations with Vietnam and those in China is the level and nature of contact between the two governments, going back decades. 

Relations with Vietnam have been improving for decades, with official delegations from the Vatican traveling openly to the country since the 1990s, and with the Vietnamese prime minister meeting Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican in 2007, before the country’s president followed suit in 2009 — the same year an official Vietnam–Holy See Joint Working Group was established.

Another presidential visit to the Vatican followed in 2016 under Pope Francis.

And while the Vatican has accepted significant interference in Church affairs by the Vietnamese government over the years — including a limit on the number of seminarians allowed in the country, and the number of priests ordained — this has come in two crucial contexts.

The first key context is that Hanoi has proved to be a relatively honest and engaged interlocutor with the Holy See. In addition to high level government visits to the Vatican, Vietnam has also largely abided by the terms of its agreements with Rome, working from Vatican-approved lists of episcopal candidates and not acting unilaterally on appointments.

The second is that diplomatic talks with Vietnam have yielded a visible loosening of restrictions on the Church in the country, with the government gradually lifting limits on seminarians and ordinations, accepting Vatican prerogatives on appointments, and allowing for the appointment of archbishops for the country in a series of deals an announcements from 1996 up until 2018, when it was a announced Rome would designate a permanent non-resident delegate to the country.

Neither of those contexts appears present in the Church’s dealings with Beijing. On the contrary, contrast the high-level and long standing diplomatic engagement by Vietnam’s leadership with China where, despite clear willingness on the part of Pope Francis, he has not yet been able to open the door for a papal visit to China, or secure a meeting with president Xi Jinping.

And, despite the Vatican-China deal having already been renewed twice, the Secretariat of State has no obvious progress to show for its pains — on the contrary, state control of the local Church is growing.

Worse still for anyone hoping the Vatican-China agreement will yield progress along Vietnamese lines, Rome now frankly acknowledges they aren’t dealing with an honest partner in Beijing.

Far from growing tolerance for Catholic practice and respect for Vatican prerogatives, the Chinese authorities have repeatedly and publicly disregarded their deal with Rome, appointing and transferring bishops without reference to the pope, enshrining that process in law while the Vatican openly acknowledges it has no choice but to acquiesce. 

With the government now going as far as to create its own dioceses, the recent Vatican announcement of a planned non-resident representative in Beijing begins to look more like desperation than Vietnamese-style progress. 

Indeed, beyond similar historical contexts and points of departure, the Vatican's diplomatic efforts with Vietnam and China appear to be almost opposites of each other. 

On the one hand, increasingly public, formal, and high-level contacts with Vietnam have been slowly paced out over decades, accompanied by small, occasionally halting, but measurable progress on the ground for the freedom of the Church.

On the other, what contact there has been with Chinese leaders remains out of sight, and without any prospect of a formal meeting between president and pope. 

Meanwhile, the Chinese government has increased its grip on the Church, reneging on what terms it has agreed to and repeatedly demonstrating it sees the Vatican as more captive than partner in their talks.

Ultimately, the key to understanding why the Vatican’s efforts appear to be working in Vietnam and not China may simply come down to relative diplomatic clout.

When the president of Vietnam meets the pope, it boosts his image. When the Church reports favorable progress on religious freedom in his country, it’s indirectly good business for an economy working to broaden access to Western markets.

The Holy See has no such relative upsides to offer Xi and his government.

If the Vatican’s long term bet with Hanoi appears to have paid off, their gamble to reopen China increasingly looks like a called bluff.

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