The Catholic Church in Vietnam has inaugurated a new national Catholic university, the first institution of its kind since the country was reunified under communist rule in 1975 following the Vietnam War.
The Catholic Institute of Vietnam was inaugurated in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) on September 14, with the specific aim of enhancing “theological knowledge and competence among all priests, religious and laypeople,” according to the rector of the institute, Bishop Joseph Dinh Duc Dao.
The bishop added that theological understanding is necessary for Catholics to live a true life of faith in a fast changing society.
Among the 37 candidates who took the entrance exam in July, 23 students are attending the first master’s theological course, most of them priests from dioceses and religious orders.
The institute is temporarily based at the headquarters of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam in the city.
The founding of the University seems a particularly welcome sign of openness on the part of the Communist government, especially given its record of human rights violations in the area of religious liberty.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) considers Vietnam to be a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, where “particularly severe violations of religious freedom are perpetrated or tolerated.” This designation is USCIRF’s most severe evaluation of the state of religious liberty in a country, and Vietnam has received this designation every year since 2001.
In its 2016 report, USCIRF criticized “the government’s continuing heavy-handed management of religion,” which continues to lead not only to restrictions and discrimination, but also “to individuals being outright harassed, detained, and targeted with physical violence.”
Of a total population of some 94 million people, most of whom are Buddhists, more than six million Vietnamese are Catholic.
According to USCIRF, relations between the Vietnamese government and the Vatican improved in 2015, with Vatican prefect Cardinal Fernando Filoni visiting Hanoi in January and Pope Francis naming Pierre Nguyen Van Nhon as Vietnam’s newest Cardinal.
The Vietnamese government has been trying to cultivate a more positive relationship with the Catholic Church and government officials have underscored “the expanding opportunities for charitable and social work by the Catholic Church,” of which the new university is a part.
In this regard, Vietnam stands in stark contrast to its neighbor China, which under the government of President Xi Jinping has engaged in a systematic crackdown on Christianity throughout the country, targeting with particular animus the underground Catholic Church, faithful to Rome.
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