Three Catholic priests are candidates for election to the Vietnamese national assembly, the “highest organ of state power” under the nation’s constitution.

The candidacy of the three priests has prompted criticism among Vietnamese Catholics, in light of the transparent Church policy against political activity by priests, and in light of their public support for the Communist government. It has also been stirring up hot debates on the application of ecclesial disciplines in Vietnam.

Father Tran Manh Cuong and Father Le Ngoc Hoan, of the dioceses of Ban Me Thout and Bui Chu, respectively, are already members of the current 12th national assembly; they are running now for their membership renewal in the 13th assembly, which will be elected on May 22. A third priest, Father Phan Khac Tu of the Saigon archdiocese, is running for the first time, and his candidacy has drawn more public attention.

Fr. Phan Khac Tu
Father Tu is chief editor of Catholics and People, a magazine that was founded with government support in 1975 and became known for its frequent criticism of Pope John Paul II and the Vatican. His election campaign has highlighted Father Tu’s involvement in the Vietnam War, even claiming that he built a small secret factory to produce hand-held bombs that could be used against American soldiers. In an interview with Vietnam Net, a state-run media outlet, Father Tu voiced his pride in running such a factory inside a church in central Saigon as neither the South government nor the CIA could have suspected this.

Responding to the news, Fr. Joseph Nguyen in Hanoi told VietCatholic News: “‘Thy should not kill" is a Commandment of GOD. Turning God’s temple into a weapon factory is a grave blasphemy. It’s immoral and unspeakable.”

However, when it comes to disciplinary actions against Fr. Tu that many have suggested, he was afraid that not much the Catholic ordinaries could do. “Discipline him? That’s right. But, be realistic: How and who dares to do so against such a man of super power?” he asked.

Father Tu, a member of the Communist Party, has long been the pastor of the Vietnamese Martyrs Church of Vuon Xoai, one of the largest in Ho Chi Minh City. He is alleged to be fathering two children with a female companion who has publicly confirmed their relationship as man and wife by Vietnamese culture.

The Code of Canon Law (285-3) forbids clerics from holding political office “if it means sharing in the exercise of civil power.” In an open letter to the Vietnamese hierarchy, several priests—including Father Nguyen Van Ly, a prominent dissident who has spent almost 15 years in prison—argue that membership in the national assembly falls into that proscribed category, since the National Assembly exists only to legitimize decisions of the Communist Party. “It is clear from Church teachings that no true Catholic can ever be a Communist, or condone Communism,” the priests add. They ask the Vietnamese bishops to take disciplinary action against the priests who are candidates for election.

Fr. Chan Tin, a Redemptorists in Saigon, demands an immediate withdrawal from the election of the three priests to “save the face of the Church”. “Does the Church in Vietnam have its own Canon Law or special exemptions?” he asks. “If not, then no priests can participate in such an organ of power.”

There has been a common belief among Catholics that Vietnam is copying China’s religious policies. Fr. Tu is believed to hold a very high ranking position in the National People's Congress like Bishop Michael Fu Tieshan of Beijing who had been vice-chairman of China's parliament until his death on April 20, 2007.

State media said about Fr. Tu