Characteristics of the Early Catholic Church in Korea
1. Context of Acceptance of Catholicism
Catholicism was introduced into Korea in 1784 by Koreans. The spontaneous acceptance of Catholicism by Korean people without assistance of foreign missionaries was a consequence of the social change at that time. For Korea, the 18th century was a transition period leading to a new era with the significant innovations and reforms in socio-economic thought. Commerce, manufacture and mining were developed in the country that, up till then, was an agricultural society. With the challenge of the times the traditional class system was beginning to collapse.
Though the Neo-Confucianism had still dominated thinking of the times, people's way of thinking was beginning to change. Some scholars were convinced that Neo-Confucianism was unable to promote the progress of society and sought a new way of thinking that could transform and lead the society. Thus they turned to the 'Practical Thought' which was a revision of Neo-Confucianism on the lines of the Early Confucianism.
The scholars of the Practical Thought had an alternative idea which could speak for the ordinary people and raise a new type of people-centered society. Also people were opened to the traditional belief and "heterodox" thoughts such as Buddhism that the ruling class considered as "profane thought" and rejected it seeking to launch a new religious movement. The ruling class condemned these ideas as heretical and tried to prohibit them but they spread widely.
In this process of social and cultural change, some intellectuals and common people spontaneously took up the study on Catholicism and practiced it.
2. Social Characteristics of the Believers
In the early Church in Korea there were two categories of people who accepted Catholicism. Those in the first category were Confucian intellectuals who were involved in the school of the 'Practical Thought.' They were critical about Neo-Confucianism and wanted to replace it with Early Confucianism. By studying Catholic books published in China by Jesuit Fathers they came to consider Catholicism as a new interpretation of the Early Confucianism and embraced it with faith. They believed the new religion complements what was lacking in Early Confucianism. These noble intellectuals became the founding fathers of the Church in Korea.
On the other hand, ordinary people had their own way to approach to Catholicism. The Church leaders translated Catholic books from Chinese into Korean and published them as block printing. That helped people who did not know how to read Chinese characters with reading Catholic books and learning from them.
Unlike the Church leaders at that time, the common people understood that the Catholic belief was different from Confucianism. They accepted Catholicism as a way to challenge the unjust social system based on the Confucianism of the ruling class. For them the gospel was not just a piece of good religious news but a good social news.
As the Church developed, people of these two categories pursued different ways. Catholics from the nobility were reintegrated into Confucianism when they were forced to give up their new religion following the government's decision, and those who thought that Christianity was radically different from Confucianism continued their unswerving belief in Catholicism. The government persecuted catholicism considering it as a dangerous element to the social order. Soon the leadership of the Church was formed of people who had abandoned their privileged status in order to keep their faith, and lower class people who had no rights to claim any privileges.
3. Characteristics of Comprehension of Catholicism
The Catholic faith brought about the monotheism to Korean people for the first time. People who believed in the highest being from ancient times could easily come to believe in transcendant Trinitarian God. Korean people had a deep faith in a Supreme Being who created the world and governs it but had no concept of a Mediator. So they felt closer to God the Father than to God the Son at the beginning. They were deeply touched by an understanding that all human beings are created in the image of God and therefore all people are equal. From such an understanding of God they came to a new outlook on humanity and society, pursued the equality of all human beings.
The books they read contained basic doctrine of the Catholic faith, and they practiced religious virtues from what they learned. However Korean Catholics were under the influence of their own traditional culture while they practiced Christian faith. In Korean traditional culture, three observances are important: loyalty to the king, filial piety to parents and chastity of women. People learned that it was worthful to sacrifice their lives for these three ideals.
In line with this thinking, Korean Catholics wanted to offer their loyalty and filial piety to God rather than to the king who was a human being. They sought to be faithful to God with the loyalty of women who observed chastity of mind and body. It was the cultural background of Korean martyrs who got the strong faith that enabled them to give up their lives for God.