The Patriotic Catholic Union, a proposal sponsored by the Vietnamese Communist Party, would resemble the Patriotic Catholic Church in China, where the government uses the association to control the work of an "approved" Catholic Church.
According to the Vatican news agency Fides, an affiliate of the bureau Propaganda Fide, the Patriotic Catholic Union was set in motion at a congress attended by 350 delegates, including 140 priests and 20 nuns as well as various high officials of the Communist Party. Fides points out that these representatives accounted for only "a very small minority" of the country's Catholics. There are 1,800 priests and 10,000 nuns active in Vietnam today-- not counting those who are operating clandestinely, to serve the underground Church. There are an estimated 7 million Catholics in Vietnam, making that country the second most populous Catholic land in Asia (after the Philippines).
The Vietnamese bishops have called upon the priests and nuns who were active in the efforts to set up the Patriotic Catholic Union to pull out of the group, in order to devote themselves entirely to their apostolic work. The government has not yet responded to the bishops' protests regarding the development.
A Congress of Vietnamese Catholics, convened by the new Patriotic Union, was held from December 30 through January 1, but closed to press observers. According to Fides, the meeting was devoted to an accounting of the ways in which the Church could work "for the construction and defense of the country."
In recent months, there have been anti-government protests by Catholic believers, particularly in the Diocese of Xuan Loc. There, demonstrations involving up to 10,000 Catholics have led to clashes with police. At the government's request Bishop Paul Marie Nguyen Minh Nhat intervened to call for an end to the confrontations, but the protests have continued.
At the Congress of Vietnamese Catholics, the faithful were urged to be "true patriots" and "contribute to the stability and development of Vietnam." Le Kha Phieu, the secretary general of the Communist Party, made a personal appearance to ask Catholics to assume their "responsibilities to society," and the Party's daily newspaper Nhan Dan added that Catholics should have "a correct attitude" and respect "the independence, sovereignty, and laws of the state."
The Congress did not take up the requests of the Vietnamese bishops, who have repeatedly petitioned the government for greater freedom to conduct worship, open schools, and operate hospitals and charitable agencies. Two years ago the bishops asked the government for permission to open two new seminaries, and to expand the number of young men admitted to the existing seminaries; the government has not yet responded. "The Catholic faithful are ready to make an important contribution to the development of the society and of the country, but it is the government which is placing limits on their work," one priest in Saigon observed.