Catholic Church and Korean Society under Colonial Rule(1)
1. Context of the Times
The period between 1910 and 1945 was marked by social changes in Korea because it became a multi-religious society under Japanese colonial rule. It is from this historical perspective that we can understand the history of the Catholic Church in Korea and the history of the country at that time.
Externally, the Japanese imperialists approved the freedom of religion and the expression of faith for the Korean people. For this reason most Christian missionaries tolerated Japanese colonial rule over the people. Nevertheless, the colonial rulers demanded a strict separation of Church and the government trying to limit the religious realm to the future life alone. They, in fact, wanted to control the religion and intervene in religious affairs of Korean people for the sake of their own colonial policy. However they could not persecute religions indiscriminately since they allowed the freedom of religion.
In this situation Confucianism, which was the leading religion of the Joseon Dynasty, prospered continually. Also Buddhism, which had been persecuted during the Joseon Dynasty, began to spread again. Under the influence of Japanese Buddhists, some sectors of Korean Buddhism adopted the pro-Japanese policy. Besides, many new native religions flourished again including Daejong-gyo, which worships Dangun, the legendary founder of Korea, and Cheondo-gyo (Religion of Heavenly Way) which was founded in the middle of the 19th century. Some of these sects were persecuted by the colonial rulers because they had become powers that sought the national independence. In the Protestant Church, fundamentalist denominations took an active position in the mission work.
2. Relations Between the Catholic Church and Other Religions
After the Open Port Policy Era which ensured the freedom of religion in Korea, Catholics, along with Protestants, Buddhists and believers of other native religions, had the freedom to express their faith. In fact, many new religions took root in Korean society during this time and gave characteristics of a multi-religious society.
In the process, however, the Catholic Church, convinced of the concept of "Extra ecclesia, nulla salus", distanced itself from other religions and refused to communicate with them. The Church judged Buddhism as a religion of the idol worship. Apparently as a result of the controversy that flared up in China in 1742 over the issue of participation in ancestral rites, the Holy See had prohibited Catholics from carrying out ritual offerings to ancestors, which the Korean people highly valued as a traditional custom and believed to be a natural expression of filial piety to one's forbearers. Up until 1939 the Church viewed the ancestral rites as a native superstition, but thereafter it allowed participation in the rites with certain restrictions.
Prohibition against the ancestral rites meant that the Korean people had to deny their own traditional values and customs. Traditional Korean intellectuals naturally responded by turning their backs on Catholicism and saw the Church as working in collusion with foreign invaders.
To compound the situation, the Catholic Church in Korea found itself in an expanding crisis with the Protestant Churches. Protestantism was first introduced in Korea around 1884, one century later than Catholicism and Catholics were being warned about Protestantism as early as 1840. In some places, Catholics and Protestants clashed over the mission issues. By 1907, Protestants surpassed Catholics in number even though the Catholic Church was introduced much earlier and had given the country a number of martyrs. Protestant Churches also developed more rapidly than the Catholics during the colonial period and to this day outnumber Catholics.
There are some of the more notable reasons for the Protestants' success. First, the Protestant Church, with the direct evangelization, placed great importance on the indirect mission works such as education and medical care. As a result, these works allowed the people to convert to the Protestant faith more easily. On the other hand, the Catholic Church could reach only a limited number of people through its direct evangelization offered only by few Korean priests and missionaries.
Second, the Protestant Church succeeded in the formation of Korean religious elites. Thus, they were able to form a number of highly qualified Korean ministers. Even though they were led by foreign missionaries, these Korean ministers carried out the effective mission work and made a significant contribution to the growth of the Protestant Church.
Third, the Protestant ministers and the faithful were sincerely committed to social development and national causes. Their example was much more of a positive influence over the general public in Korea than that of the Catholic leaders whose influence remained only within the Church.
Fourth, the Protestants had greater human and material resources to support their missions than the Catholic Church.
These factors made a considerable impact on the statistical growth of the Protestant Church and its development. As a result of the competitive climate and the Catholic Church's failure to outdo their Protestant rivals, the Catholic Church in Korea broke off all relations with the Protestant Church and other religions as well and decided to go its own way, thus severely isolating itself.
Breaking off dialogue with traditional religions and the Protestant Church is the most distinctive aspect of the Korean Catholic Church's history during the colonial period. At that time it was only through religion that one could organize or form solidarity with others. It was the most convenient way for Koreans to get together because the colonial officials banned Koreans from forming civil associations. Religious leaders, speaking out in solidarity with the people, influenced public opinion.
The Catholic Church, isolating itself from other religions and refusing relations with them, even further restricted Catholic influence in Korean society. For example, the Catholic Church was the only major religion not represented in the March 1st Independence Movement leadership which was the most important Korean independence movement against Japanese rule, initially organized and run by religion leaders.