Persecution of the Catholic Church in Korea
1. Context of the Persecution
The Catholic faith was in conflict with Korean traditional culture from the time it was introduced into the country. The government at that time did not give Korean people the freedom to believe in the new religion since they viewed the Catholic faith as a 'Profane Teaching'. Also the Catholic doctrine was rejected by the authorities because it was something very different from the Neo-Confucianism which was the leading ideology of the government at that time. For instance, Catholic teaching prohibited to practice the ancestral rites while Confucian custom considered it as an important expression of filial piety to parents.
Even though the Catholic religion was banned by law, many people believed in it sincerely but secretly. So the rulers considered the Catholics' attachment to their belief as a direct challenge to the authority of the king. The believers claimed the separation of the faith and politics and insisted their belief. But the government could not accept such conception, and interpreted the behavior of the Catholics as a frontal challenge to the king. On the other hand, the Catholics also rejected the social hierarchical system and the sexual discrimination which helped to maintain the Joseon Dynasty and the social order. Thus the government had further reasons to persecute the Catholics because it thought that they were disturbing the social order. Christians were also openly in contact with the Church in China and French missionaries while the government prohibited or controlled strictly any contacts of the common people with foreigners.
All these conducts of the Catholics were understood as a direct challenge to the authority of the king and the policy of the government. As a result, the Joseon Dynasty finally came to define the Catholic Church as a 'profane belief' and began to persecute it officially.
2. Process of the Persecution
The first persecution of Catholics began in 1785, about one year after the Catholic Church was established in Korea. The persecution was openly triggered off when the police discovered a meeting of believers. However, in the first stage of the persecution, the punishment was relatively light. Only the owner of the house was punished and exiled. And the believers from the noble class were pressured to give up their belief in the new religion. In a family-centered society, the punishment by the family had the same impact as the punishment by the government.
The persecution of 1791 was caused by the believers of the noble class who ignored the government's decree against the Catholic faith. The faithful rejected the ancestral rites and burned the ancestral tablet. These actions were condemned by their families and society as serious violations against the filial piety. The Catholics who were involved in were sentenced to death immediately. This event led many believers of the noble class to leave the Church. The persecution in 1791 was relatively small but it was significant event in many aspects.
Following that, an aggressive mission attitude opposing traditional culture began to take dominant position within the Church in Korea instead of a mission ideology seeking to adapt itself to the local culture. Such cultural conflict provoked tougher persecutions. The persecutions in 1801, 1839, 1846 and 1866 led to the death of about 10,000 martyrs. Among those who died martyrs were a considerable number of outstanding lay leaders. Also, the loss of one Chinese and twelve French missionaries from the Paris Foreign Missions Society was a big blow to the Church. Out of them 103 martyrs were canonized on May 6th, 1984 at Yoido, Seoul, by the Pope John Paul II.
3. Impact of the Persecution
Persecution strengthened the faith of the believers but at the same time it was an obstruction to the normal development of the Church. The blood of the martyrs had become the seeds of the faith and an opportunity to confess one's belief in God. However, worn out by persecution, the Church had little energy left for the mission. The persecution also influenced the way of the Christian life of the faithful. In the early days, Korean Catholics knew how to harmonize their faith with social life but, blocked by the persecution, the message of the gospel to the society could not be pursued any further. It also made the Catholics aspire after the world to come only. They learned a dualistic separation between 'mundane world' and 'holiness'. In faith, they pursued a heavenly life or Christian perfection in order to free themselves from a world that oppressed them.
To the noble class at that time, the persecution of the believers meant the loss of all privileges which they enjoyed. Thus the Catholic Church became a religion of ordinary people rather than of the privileged classes. Thus it had characteristics of "religious movement of the Minjung," meaning the common people.
As a result, at the end of 19th century, when the freedom of religion was allowed, Catholics showed little interest in their own social promotion and hesitated to take a leadership role at the time of rapid modernization. However, the persecution of the Catholic Church was an important event in Korean history. Due to it, some intellectuals came to reflect with interest in the teaching of the Church and embraced the Catholic faith. Ordinary people, who were impressed by the sacrificial life of believers, also became interested in Christianity and accepted Catholic religion. In many ways the life of the believers was a challenge to the social order and raised awareness of the importance of the freedom of thought and conscience. Consequently, the Joseon Dynasty was forced to make changes in its anti-modern policy of controlling the conscience of people.