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Savior Meets Sage:
Korea's Confucian Catholicism
By Joshua Snyder
Special Contribution
Saint Andrew Kim Taegon (1821-1846) was Korea's first Roman Catholic priest. In the early 17th century, Roman Catholicism in Korea was primarily introduced by laypeople. He studied at a seminary in Macau and was ordained a priest in Shanghai six years later.

If Confucius is among the virtuous pagans in the Limbo described in Dante's Infernoand there is no reason for him not to bethen he is surely smiling upon the Catholic Church in what is often described as the world's most Confucian country. The inculturation of the Catholic Faith in Confucian Korea is a story that is both instructive and exemplary, one that speaks to the universality of both Catholicism as a religion and Confucianism as a philosophy.

While there is speculation that Nestorian missionaries may have brought the Christian religion as far as the Korean peninsula in the first millennium, the first documented evidence of the gospel's arrival in Korea was, paradoxically and painfully, during Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasions of 1592. The 16th has been called Japan's "Catholic Century," when as much as ten percent of the population had converted to the religion brought to the country by Saint Francis Xavier. Among Hideyoshi's samurai were Catholics who managed to convert a few of the Koreans they encountered. Later, this same Hideyoshi went on to persecute the Japanese Church, leaving generations of Kakure Kirishitan ("hidden Christians") to keep the Faith underground.

The Koreans converts of the Hideyoshi invasion suffered the same fate as the Kakure Kirishitan, not from persecution but from the lack of the priesthood and the sacraments vital to the Catholic religion. For centuries, some of these believers kept the trappings the Faith, to the degree that a 19th Century French missionary priest, in a region in which he had thought the Gospel had yet reached, reported meeting a Korean who told him that he was of the same Faith.

But it was not the French who first brought the Faith to Korea. In an event unparalleled in Church history, Korea was "self-evangelized" by laymen. In the 18th Century, some Korean Confucian scholars visiting Peking brought back home with them some Catholic tracts that had been written in the previous century by Fr. Matteo Ricci, S.J., a Jesuit priest who had risen to become the emperor's chief astronomer. Fr. Ricci, who had come to describe himself as a "Western Confucian," translated the Confucian classics into Latin and gave us the Latinized names by which Westerners still know Confucius and Mencius. He saw in Confucian teaching a preparatio evangeliuma preparation for the Gospeland concluded that Confucianism was more compatible with Catholicism than it was with the Buddhist and Taoist elements with which it has been combined to form Neo-Confucianism. The tracts Fr. Ricci wrote were written for the Confucian mind, and when they reached Korea, they created quite an intellectual sensation among the literati.

Thus, it was laymen, Confucian scholars no less, who introduced the Catholic faith to Korea. In 1784, the first Catholic prayer house was established in P'yŏngyang. The contemporary Korean neo-Confucian school known as Sirhak (), or "practical learning," was open to knew ideas, Catholicism among them. One of the first converts was the eminent Korean philosopher of this school, Chŏng Yak-yong. For his Faith he was banished to internal exile on a remote island, where he worked on ideas such as land reform, the abolition of slavery, and administrative restructuring.

Saint Andrew Kim Taegon returned home from China, where he had been ordained to the priesthood in Macao, and established the Church with its priesthood and sacraments. He was martyred in 1846, in what would be one of a wave of bloody persecutions that would glorify an estimated 10,000 martyrs.

"Sanguis martyrum, semen Christianorum," said Tertullian: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." His words ring as true for 19th Century Korea as they did for 1st Century Rome. By 1884, the persecutions had ended and the apostolic territories of Korea became full-fledged dioceses, aided by Catholic priest-missionaries from France and elsewhere.

Shortly after the end of the persecutions, the first American Protestant missionaries arrived. During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945), Korean Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, were active in the independence movement. After independence, churches, both Catholic and Protestant, served as communities for the newly urbanized Koreans who had left their tight-knit villages.

In the 1970s and '80s, there came into existence Minjung Theology (), an indigenous version of the Marxist-tinged Liberation Theology that had developed in Latin America a decade earlier. Although it gained some Catholic adherents, it was always a movement spearheaded by Protestants. The Catholic Church was too Confucian for its 2000-year-old theology to be swayed by questionable ideology. The Church was, however, at the leadership of the democratization and labor movements of the period, and Myŏngdong Cathedral, which offered sanctuary to dissidents, became a powerful symbol and rallying-point during this tumultuous period, and remains so today.

Today, Catholicism is alone among South Korea's main religionsthe others being Protestantism and Buddhismto be growing significantly. And it is growing at a phenomenal rate. From an article entitled Catholicism, not Protestantism, captures minds of Koreans, we learn that "the number of Catholics and Buddhists has increased 744.4 percent and 3.9 percent, respectively, for the past 10 years, while the number of Protestant Christians has decreased 1.6 percent." Today, more Koreans self-identify as Catholics than the Church has as members on its rosters!

Koreaits southern half at least for the time beingseems well on its way toward Catholicization. Why is this? Why is it that the Catholic Faith makes such a perfect fit for the Confucian Korean soul? Let us examine the Catholic Faith and how it has been inculturated in Korea in light of the main tenets of Confucian philosophy.

Jen (), most often translated as "benevolence," is a reality understandable to the Catholic mind. In fact, when it comes to jen, Catholics are more Catholic than the Popeor in this case, more Confucian than Confucius. The Confucian Golden Rule is stated in The Analects, XV, 23: "Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you." Christ's version was stated in the positive in Matthew, VII, 12 and in Luke, VI, 31.

The charity work for which the Church is esteemed throughout the worldher hospitals, orphanages, soup kitchens, and leprosoriaearned the respect and even awe of Confucian Koreans. Especially among the disenfranchised and forgotten of society did the Church grow because of her charity work. Confucianism, as noble as it is, is but a human philosophy informed by natural theology, not a divinely revealed religion. It can be said that Confucian jen has been perfected by the Catholic Faith.

Li () is is more difficult to understand than jen, and the concept is also more difficult to translate. It has been rendered variously as "etiquette," "ceremony," "rite," "ritual," or "propriety." The Divine Sacrifice of the Mass is a rite readily understandable to the Confucian mind. Confucius understood that man was Homo religiosus, even though the Sage himself was, if anything, irreligious. He denied the presence of the ancestral spirits in the rite. While he denied the existence of the spirits, he affirmed the importance of ceremonial propriety in the orientation of man toward the good, which, for Confucius, was filial piety. The ancestral rite was meant not for the departed ancestors, but for the living. (In what has come to be known as the "Rites Controversy," the Church, under Jansenist influence, determined the Confucian ancestral rite to be pagan and it was not until 1939 that the Church came around to the learned opinion of Fr. Matteo Ricci, that the Confucian ancestral rite was familial, not religious in nature, and Asian Catholics were allowed to participate in it.)

Said the Sage, "Take your stand in the li" (The Analects, VII, 8.) and, "Not to know the li is to have no means of standing" (ibid., XX, 3). The Catholic stands in the Mass as the central part of his worship and life. The rubrics proscribed in the Mass orient the believer toward God, just as the ancestral rite orients the descendant toward his ancestors. Korean Catholics "stand in the li" and the Mass is said here with uniform piety and reverence. To the Korean Catholic, the degree of liturgical experimentation seen in the West is unthinkable.

Chung () is the subject of the Confucian classic The Doctrine of the Mean. The idea of "harmony" that it expresses is central to all the philosophical schools of the East, and not alien to the West as attested by Aristotle's "Golden Mean." The ideal is apparent in the Korean Catholic Church, especially when compared to its Western counterparts. Korean Catholics readily adhere to the injunction of the Apostle "that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms among you; but that you be perfect in the same mind, and in the same judgment" (First Corinthians, I, 10).

In the West, it is not uncommon for Catholics to preface their religious identity with an adjective, "liberal," "conservative," "progressive," "orthodox," "traditionalist," being among the more popular. Often, the adjective becomes more important than the noun it describes. This is unthinkable for the Korean Catholic, who understands his faith to be "catholic" (ός, from , "according to," and ς, "the whole"). Thus, Koreans avoid schisms and factions and think of themselves as Catholics first. The unity of Korean Catholics is something from which their Western co-religionists can learn from and emulate.

The Catholic Church in Korea is unique in many ways. She was established by indigenous layman, and was incultured harmoniously to an unheard of degree. Catholics, Confucians, and others have much to learn from her example.



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Mr. Joshua Snyder, American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian

 

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