Vietnam’s chairman will deliver a speech at the Jubilee Closing Ceremony. The announcement of the archdiocese of Hue sparks controversies among Catholics.

On Dec. 21, Pope Benedict XVI named the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Cardinal Ivan Dias, as his special envoy to the celebration marking the closure of the Jubilee Year of the Church in Vietnam. The Jubilee, marking the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the first Vicariates Apostolic and the 50th anniversary of the institution of the Catholic hierarchy in the country, had started on Nov. 24, 2009 on the Solemnity of the 117 Vietnamese martyrs canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1988. The Closing Ceremony will be held at the national Marian shrine of La Vang from Jan. 4 to 6, 2011

A few days after the announcement of Pope’s special envoy to the celebration, Hue Archdiocese announced a detailed program including the speech of either Vietnam’s chairman or prime minister in the ceremony. Later, news from state media has indicated that it would be Nguyen Minh Triet, Vietnam’s chairman, to speak at the celebration.

The announcement has drawn much criticism. Vietnamese Catholics both at home and abroad alike have expressed their shock and sadness to the honour the archdiocese has granted to a person who always acts in defiance of the Church’s fundamental moral principles. Triet, as the top leader of the country, also has to take his responsibility on the destruction of the crucifix at Dong Chiem, the sacred symbol of billions of Christians around the world. It’s worth noting that the incident happened in January 2010, during the Jubilee Year of the Catholic Church in Vietnam. He also should be held personally liable for numerous crackdowns against Catholics which has escalated during Christmas.

Vietnamese Bishops had encountered sharp criticism among lay Catholics for their unwillingness to adopt a confrontational attitude toward the nation’s government, particularly on issues such as abortion and on the government’s seizure of property from the Church. Bishop Joseph Nguyen Chi Linh, the vice President of the episcopal conference, observed that it was “an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of the Church in Vietnam.”

The criticism, escalating in April of this year, when Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet resigned from his post as Archbishop of Hanoi, has shown some signs of abating before erupting again by the announcement.

“As teachers of the Catholic faith and of the moral law, bishops have the duty to teach unequivocally about human life and dignity, marriage and family, war and peace, the needs of the poor and the demands of justice. They chose not to do so but to keep silence on grave social evils. And now they give their platform for the devil to speak in such a sacred religious ceremony,” wrote a Catholic Website.

It appears to be a protocol that political leaders do not deliver their speech in such a religious ceremony. Both South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem and his successor President Nguyen Van Thieu were devout Catholics. They attended religious ceremonies quite often without saying a word. "How come the atheist Triet can deliver a 'homily' in the Mass?" asked the Website.

Some have attributed the invitation to Triet to the pressure on bishops by the so-called “Vietnam Committee for Catholic Solidarity”, an organisation born by the government in 1975 charged with the mission to establish a self-governing Catholic Church in Vietnam.

However, Fr. Pascal Nguyen Ngoc Tinh, a biblical scholar in Saigon, refers it to “the dependence of the Catholic Church in Vietnam to the State” which has caused by the “exemption” of section 5 of Canon Law 377, which states that “For the future, no rights or privileges of election, appointment, presentation or designation of Bishops are conceded to civil authorities.”

In fact, in China and Vietnam, bishops still cannot be appointed without government approval. Before presenting the candidate to the Holy Father for appointment, Vatican officials must request the approval of Vietnam government who in turn contacts with the candidate and puts forward certain conditions for its approval. The approval process from the atheist government may drag for months even for years until the regime can reach to an agreement with the candidate. Bishop Paul Nguyen Thai Hop, who was ordained Bishop of Vinh on Jul. 23, 2010, disclosed that his approval process had dragged for more than 2 years. The prelate, who is also the president of the newly born Peace and Justice Commission of the Episcopal Conference, has called for the strict application of Canon Law 377, and asked the government to follow “the common procedure on bishop appointment that has applied widely around the world”.

In the biblical scholar’s opinion, by the means of such conditions, Vietnam government has successfully controlled bishops at some levels trying to transform Vietnamese Catholicism into “a religion of festivals and rituals”; and the Church into “a decoration for the regime’s self-promotion” in order to hide its notorious human rights record. In his words, it is a Church that “cannot perform her prophetic mission, becomes indifferent and insensitive to the suffering of people and the future of the country, and turns her back against the poor.”

What Triet, whose speeches often surprise his audience with “kidding and out-of-common sense” comments, will talk about remains unknown. However, Catholic Web sites have suggested that he will take this opportunity to distort the phrase "a good Catholic is a good citizen" from the June 27, 2009 speech of Benedict XVI to the bishops of Vietnam, on the occasion of their ad Limina visit.

Removed from its context, it is understood and used by state media to demand complete and unconditional submission to civil authorities from Catholics.

Triet’s speech is very likely to be broadcast live on state television channels. That causes another concern.

On Oct. 1, 2008, a delegation of Vietnamese bishops led by Cardinal J.B. Pham Minh Man met with Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to discuss issues relating to growing tensions in Church-state relations, in particular, the sudden demolition of Hanoi nunciature and the campaign of state media to insult Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet. State television broadcast a long detailed report. In his opening statement, the prime minister asserted that the government's stance on the ownerships of seized church properties would remain the same. He went on to criticize Archbishop Joseph Ngo Quang Kiet of Hanoi quite harshly, accusing him of "having actions and words that had damaged his own reputation among the Vietnamese Catholic Community and the society as a whole", and asking the bishops to help “educate” the then Hanoi archbishop.

State television showed the bishop listen attentively to his “instructions”. It did not show their reactions in a clear attempt to show the image of a pitiful and shameful Church which dared not to defend for herself. No one knows if the history repeats itself.