Korean Catholic Church and the Nationalist Movement
1. Coping with Changing Times
The period from the late 19th century to the early 20th century of Korean history is called the period of the invasion of imperialism. With the Open Port Policy, Korea was forced to open its port by pressure of foreign powers and the invasion of foreign military forces, leading to the invasion and annexation of Korea by Japan in 1910.
Under Japanese occupation, Korean people fought to protect their sovereignty by forming the anti-imperialism movement through the method of both non-violence and armed resistance. Korean historians believe these movements are rooted in Korean nationalism.
Many Western countries looked upon nationalism negatively because of its relation with the racism and invasions of neighboring countries which caused territorial disputes. The Catholic Church also considered nationalism negatively in the late 19th and early 20th century. For weaker countries, however, the nationalism carried a different meaning. It provided them with a spiritual force in the struggle to keep their independence or get the freedom from Western powers and American Imperialism.
2. Nationalist Movements from a Non-Violent Perspective
Since the Open Port Policy Era, nationalist movement had been actively and peacefully promoted by the press and in the education. In the process, people realized the necessity for studying the way of protecting their national sovereignty and made concrete efforts to achieve their goal. The Catholic Church in Korea at that time accepted the non-violent movement in principle and supported it. Many Catholics were involved in civic independence movements. Indeed the Church and individual Catholics made a significant contribution to the progress of Korean nationalism.
Educational work was one of the non-violent nationalist movement in which the Catholic Church participated positively. The modern educational system first began to take shape at that time. In 1882, the Catholic Church opened the Inhyeon School in Seoul that can be considered as the first step to initiate a modern educational system in Korea. The Catholic Church operated as many as 124 schools across the country in the first decade of the 1900's. These schools instructed students in Catholic teachings and put on efforts to restore their sovereignty. Most of them, however, had to close down because of a repressive educational policy imposed by the Japanese Imperialism and financial difficulties.
A strong national movement to save the nation was also carried out in the press. In keeping step with this movement, the Church founded a weekly newspaper, ?The Gyeonghyang Sinmun". It was run by the Church authorities and some Catholic laity who were involved in nationalist movement groups such as the "Independence Association?. "The Gyeonghyang Sinmun? was at that time one of the most influential weeklies in Korean society, but was soon closed under the pressure of the Japanese colonial government.
Another non-violent national movement in the Church was the prayer meeting. In 1904, the Catholic youth in Seoul held a prayer meeting at Myeongdong Cathedral against the Japanese government's attempt to plunder national land. Praying for the protection of their country was a natural act for Korean Catholics. Meanwhile, in 1907, a campaign to settle the national debt with Japan was launched. The objective of the movement was to protect the country from Japanese Imperialism by paying back the national loans. Korean people at that time thought that their sovereignty was in danger because of their debts to Japan. The promoter of this famous movement was Seo Sang-don, an devout Catholic in Daegu. The campaign was actively carried out in the Church, however, it failed when Korea was annexed to Japan in 1910.
3. Armed Resistance
Beginning in the earliest part of the Japanese occupation, armed resistance movements sprang up across the country. The national struggle against the Japanese colonialism was so fierce that there were as many as 50,000 Korean casualties from August 1907 to September 1909. Despite the official position of the Catholic Church which favored colonial rule, a considerable number of Korean Catholics joined armed resistance movement. These Catholics were following their conscience in becoming actively involved in the national causes.
An Jung-geun, Thomas, was the typical case. His first commitment for his country was made in the field of education, but later he changed direction and joined armed resistance for justice. When An Jung-geun assassinated Ito Hirobumi, the Japanese Colonial Ruler of Korea, at Harbin railroad platform in China on Oct. 26, 1909, he became a symbol of heroic patriotism for Korean people.
Japanese authorities, in 1910, uncovered a nationalist movement after receiving secret information from a Catholic Church leader. In 1911, some Korean Catholics were actively involved in the independence movement. This was confirmed by Catholics who were arrested during the March 1st Independence Movement. Some Catholics participated in the Shanghai Provisional Government of Korea. In Chien-tao, China, an armed resistant group was organized by Catholics and they, along with the Korean Independence Movement, fought a great battle against the Japanese army. Many Catholics participated in the resistance movement on an individual level up to the year of the independence of Korea in 1945.
Church authorities, however, clearly opposed armed resistance of Korean Catholics against the Japanese because they perceived colonial rule and the invasion of imperialism as being acceptable. The Catholic hierarchy insisted upon the separation of Church and the government and treated nationalism sorely from political perspective. Therefore, Church authorities refused An Jung-geun the sacrament of reconciliation and the Holy communion, and they excommunicated one Catholic patriot who was severely tortured by Japanese police because of his involvement in the nationalist movement. Under such hard condition, Catholic patriots did not stop their activities, claiming that their faith in God and love for country can coexist.
Korea was continually subjected to imperialist aggression from 1876 to 1945. In the process, the Church made clear her intention to support for non-violent nationalism and the promotion of a national consciousness. Nevertheless, the Church objected to armed resistance against the Japanese, recognizing the Japanese colonial rule over Korea as legitimate and opposed the involvement of the faithful in the independence movement. Regardless of the official position of the Church, a great number of Korean Catholics risked their lives by actively participating in the independence movement. The Church failed to become one with Korean people and its consequence was shown in the visible decline of the number of neophytes and her isolation from intellectuals and from the society as a whole. The social impact of the Church's official position during colonial rule had negative effects after independence when the Church had to situate herself within Korean society.