Archbishop Ngô Đình Thục left havoc in his wake, both in Vietnamese politics and the Spanish-speaking Church
It’s 1981 and the penitents of Toulon Cathedral rattle through their sins. In return, a disembodied voice from the other side of the confessional’s impenetrable grille gives a penance, and the newly absolved parishioners vanish, heading back to the office before the end of lunch. None of the people in the queue for confession would have given a thought to find out who was behind the grille, and even if they had, it would have made them none the wiser.
To the average Catholic, the name Archbishop Ngô Đình Thục means nothing. Thục – pronounced like everyone’s favourite friar from Robin Hood – sat in a confessional in Toulon for 20 years, having been exiled in 1963 from his home country of South Vietnam. But unlike millions of Vietnamese refugees, he wasn’t fleeing from a war he was innocently caught up in, but from one he helped turn into one of the most devastating conflicts in modern times.
Thục was born in 1897 and after seminary was sent to study in Rome. Returning to Vietnam as a monsignor and seeing the waning power of its French colonisers in the 1950s, he began a campaign to put his brother Ngô Đình Diệm in power under the country’s emperor Bảo Đại.
The Ngô brothers came to the attention of the US government, which was keen to find anti-communists to prevent the spread of Chinese and Soviet influence in Asia. But Diệm really owed his rise to power to the machinations of the Vatican and Thục.
Being Catholic in a country where 70 to 90 per cent of the population were Buddhists, the brothers found it easy to get the backing of political heavyweight Cardinal Francis Spellman. He arranged audiences with Pope Pius XII and lobbied for Diệm in Washington, whose backing convinced the emperor that appointing Diệm his prime minister would secure American funding.
Safely in power, Diệm got rid of Bảo Đại in a rigged referendum and installed himself as president. Not long afterwards, the Vietnam War began, pitting communist North Vietnam against the government of South Vietnam, led by Diệm and supported by the United States.
With help from Spellman and Diệm, Thục was named an archbishop by Pope John XXIII in 1960 and the Church played a crucial role in South Vietnam’s governance. But both Spellman and the Vatican could do little to stop a coup that saw Diệm shot in 1963 as part of a coup by his generals.
His overthrow came after months of unrest, caused by Thục’s order that flags celebrating Buddha’s birthday be banned in South Vietnam. Instead, the government asked its people to fly the Vatican flag to mark Thục’s 25th anniversary as a bishop.
Following protests, the archbishop convinced his brother to retaliate, with Buddhist temples and pagodas across the country vandalised or destroyed and hundreds of monks “disappeared”. It was Thục’s actions that led to the self-immolation of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức, famously photographed and flashed across the world.
Thục, despite being the catalyst for the coup against his brother’s government, escaped unharmed. A CIA report at the time noted that he was on pilgrimage in Lourdes, narrowly missing execution.
The Vatican hoped that, after he was sent to Toulon by Pope Paul VI, Thục would fade into retirement. But instead he managed to help spur one of the Church’s biggest schismatic events of the 20th century.
In 1975, Thục travelled to Palmar de Troya in Spain and consecrated an office clerk named Clemente Dominguez y Gomez as a priest and later a bishop, without the Holy See’s approval. Gomez claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary, founding the breakaway sect known as the Palmarians.
In 1978, three years after his illicit consecration, Gomez declared himself the anti-pope Gregory XVII. With the orders given to him by Thục, he proceeded to ordain and consecrate Palmarian clergy until his death in 2005.
After the Palmar consecration, Thục was excommunicated by Paul VI, before reconciling with Rome soon after, claiming it had all been a terrible mistake.
But in 1981 the illicit consecrations by Archbishop Thục began again, consecrating Dominican theologian and sedevacantist Michel-Louis Guérard des Lauriers as a bishop. A few months later he consecrated two Mexican sedevacantist priests as bishops. Thục was excommunicated once again, this time by Pope John Paul II. He died in 1984, aged 87.
It is not known exactly how many priests or bishops the elderly Vietnamese cleric ordained, as it seemed he would grant orders to anyone who asked him. There are no fewer than 15 bishops who he consecrated, spread across the heretical Palmarian and traditionalist sects, along with other parts of the Church not in communion with Rome.
Thục’s contemporaries were shocked by his actions, blaming them on mental illness or dementia, with his illicit work clashing with his expertise in canon law and his keen participation in Vatican II.
Despite his actions, Archbishop Thục remains little known decades after his death – an astonishing situation for a man responsible for the suffering of so many.
Ned Donovan is a freelance journalist