Vietnamese Catholic students, like their African Catholic contemporaries, used scholarships from the French imperial government to make their way to Paris in the 1930s. After the war and the Japanese occupation, Bishop Ngô Đình Thục rallied the Vietnamese bishops to support calls for Vietnamese independence from France. In this more nationalist setting, French missionary bishops and clergy came under attack from Vietnamese Catholics as “undesirables and troublemakers, if not enemies of the nation.”
Bishop Ngô Đình Thục’s brother, Ngô Đình Diệm, became the first president of South Vietnam after the split of the country into North and South in 1954. Ngô Đình Diệm’s alliances with American military and political leaders in the 1950s, as well as New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, are well documented, as are his own authoritarian instincts. Another Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, initially admired Diệm for “holding the country together.” But Kennedy-administration officials, frustrated by continued instability within South Vietnam and Diệm’s unpopularity as a Catholic leader in a majority-Buddhist country, condoned a coup led by South Vietnamese generals. Captured while hiding in a Catholic Church, Diệm was assassinated in November 1963.
This emergence of Indigenous Catholic leaders—in West Africa, the Philippines, Indonesia, and South Vietnam—fueled some of the discussions at the Second Vatican Council. In contrast to Pius XII’s caution, Pope John XXIII unequivocally welcomed the “attainment of political independence by the peoples of Asia and Africa.” He had served in Paris as Vatican ambassador or nuncio in the late 1940s and understood the aspirations of African and Vietnamese Catholics. He met with not only Léopold Senghor but other Africans in the months before the council.
Bishops and missionaries from the Global South almost uniformly supported the biggest single change authorized by the council: the shift from the Latin Mass to liturgy in the vernacular. One of the African bishops urged that the text on the liturgy drop the word “Western” since the Church was not, and never had been, limited to the West. “The victory of the vernacular in the church liturgy,” Karl Rahner later argued, “signals unmistakably the coming-to-be of a world Church whose individual churches exist with a certain independence in their respective cultural spheres, inculturated, and no longer a European export.” Archbishop Lefebrve, the defender of French colonialism in the 1950s, bitterly opposed the vernacular liturgy and would lead a major schism after the council, demanding the retention of the pre-1962 Latin rite.
Just after the council, Fr. Lebret and Barbara Ward helped Paul VI draft his 1967 social encyclical, Populorum progressio. The pope stressed the importance of “integral human development” and described “a type of capitalism” in bleak terms. The document was received rapturously in Latin America, where it informed the development of liberation theology.
The Wall Street Journal, by contrast, described Populorum progressio as “warmed over Marxism.” The text fell into eclipse in the 1980s and 1990s. Access to global markets, far more than development programs, brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in East Asia, especially, but also in Latin America. Communist governments in eastern Europe and then the Soviet Union itself collapsed. One of communism’s most influential opponents, Pope John Paul II, understood spiritual freedom as inseparable from economic freedom. Communism denied both.
This post-1989 confidence now seems premature. Inequality has increased to dangerous levels not only within wealthy nations such as the United States but between poor regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and more affluent parts of the world. Pope Francis frequently cites Populorum progressio. And while Catholic libertarians in the United States scoff at climate change, Francis’s environmental encyclical, Laudato si’, laments an obsession with economic growth. It is now the most influential Church document of the past sixty years.
Francis, too, is a man of the Global South, with experience working in the poorest neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. His moral sensibility is traditional: opposed to the death penalty, abortion, and gay marriage (although more welcoming than any previous pope to gay Catholics). But he is skeptical of free-market nostrums. Fellow Catholic Joe Biden placed a photo of himself with Pope Francis on his desk in the Oval Office only minutes after his inauguration. Biden delights in the fact that the pope has encouraged him to keep taking Communion even as some American bishops scheme to deny Biden the sacrament because of his pro-choice position on abortion. Still, Biden is not the American politician who quotes Pope Francis on the economy with the greatest enthusiasm. That would be Bernie Sanders.
An oddity of the moment is that two of the world’s most successful Anglophone writers happen to be Nigerian Catholics. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ancestors converted to Catholicism in the 1920s under the tutelage of Irish Catholic missionaries. As a child, her family attended Mass every Sunday at the Catholic chapel at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, and she vividly recalls singing in Igbo and English, as well as “gold pendants at women’s throats, their headscarves flared out like the wings of giant butterflies; men’s caftans crisply starched; children in frilly socks and uncomfortable clothes.” Her adult relationship to Catholicism is fraught but enduring, since “to be raised Roman Catholic is to be inducted into a culture that clings, that slides between your soul’s crevices and stays.” Characters in her fiction visit a Lourdes shrine and claim to see the Virgin Mary. A Nigerian priest travels to work in Germany because of that country’s clergy shortage. The villain of her first novel is a censorious and abusive Catholic father tied to a colonial vision of the Church; a heroine is an aunt whose Catholicism is more humane. Adichie declares herself “proud” of Pope Francis since he “seems to value the person as much as the institution.”
Another Nigerian Catholic writer, Uwem Akpan, trained as a Jesuit. His stories reveal the world through the eyes of children. One makes a dangerous journey through Catholic and Muslim regions of Nigeria. Another clutches the family crucifix while evading warring mobs in Rwanda. “I think fiction allows us to sit for a while,” he told an interviewer, “with people we would rather not meet.” His emphasis on the vulnerable people of a continent in turmoil rests upon the final document of the Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes (1965), and especially its famous first line, frequently referenced by Pope Francis: “the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.”
In 1961, as decolonization accelerated, a young Joseph Ratzinger predicted that “we cannot yet imagine the riches to come when the charisms of Asia and Africa make their contributions to the whole Church.” Now, the Nigerian Cardinal John Onaiyekan echoes Francis in seeing “the hand of God in the process of globalization.”
What will the next sixty years bring? Perhaps some of the divisions among Catholics, especially in the United States, will dissipate, less because of unanticipated resolutions and more because the world, and the Church, will have moved on. A new generation may place more emphasis on Pope Francis’s call to be “citizens of our respective nations and of the entire world, builders of a new social bond.”
This article is excerpted from Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis, published in September by W.W. Norton.