Impact that the Catholic Faith has Made Upon Korean Traditional Society
1. Premise of Analysis
All religions and beliefs influence the society where they belong to and are in turn influenced by them. Such a reciprocity has existed between Korean traditional society and the Catholic faith since it was introduced to Korea at the end of the 18th century.
The following is a brief survey to see what impact of the Catholic faith has made on Korean traditional society and history in order to have a clearer understanding of the history of the Catholic Church in Korea.
Three points need to be considered: First, an accurate understanding of the characteristics of the Catholic faith when it was introduced to Korea and the theological trends in that era. Second, an understanding of the influence that Catholic faith has made on the society and the social context at that time. Third. an analysis of the social function of those who practiced the Catholic faith. By reflecting upon these points, we will examine the Catholic influence on the traditional Korean society between 1784, the year that the Catholic faith was introduced to Korea, and 1876, the year considered as the start of the modernization of Korea.
Here we should point out that the Catholic faith which was brought to Korea in the 18th century had medieval characteristics. It was out of step with modern theology. Korean traditional society at that time was also at a turning point after the medieval age and was searching for modern values. Certain intellectuals had already begun to embrace the Catholic faith which was spreading among the lower class. In the context of the society at the end of medieval times, many people who belonged to the lower class considered that the Catholic faith was a valuable life system. Consequently, its practice implied a social resistance.
2. Promotion of Dignity of Human Person
One of the effects of the Catholic faith on the belief and value systems of Korean people was the affirmation of human dignity. The dominant value system of that time was the Neo-Confucianism which justified the existence of the ruling class. Neo-Confucianism was based on the inequality of human beings and it justified the patronization of the lower class by the higher class. However, in the 18th century, such a way of thinking was challenged by the lower class people. The outlook on human beings of the Catholic faith was different from that of Neo-Confucians.
The Church preached the equality and dignity of all human beings as they are created in the image of God. It advocated the respect for the values of the human beings and their freedom.
Such teaching of the Catholic faith was a shock to the most of the intellectuals at that time. Eventually it led them to rediscover the value of Asian wisdom with regard to the respect for human beings. For instance, Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836), a prominent philosopher, influenced by Catholic books, placed a great emphasis on human dignity unlike the Neo-Confucian sages. On the basis of this new outlook on human beings, inspired by the Catholic perspective, a broad reflection on ruling methods and social structures was made. As a result, an awareness on the equality of human beings, women's rights and the dignity of children emerged as an important social issue. The Catholic faith played a significant role in promoting the dignity of human person during that time.
3. Promotion of Equality of Human Beings
Korean traditional society was an unequal society based on patriarchy system. As in many other traditional societies, there was gender discrimination against women and children were under-valued. In such a social context the contribution made by the Catholic faith to social development, by placing importance on the principle of the equality of human beings, was considerable.
From the very beginning of the Church's introduction into Korea, Catholics formed a new community in the faith which went beyond family origin and social position. In fact they rejected the class system which divided people into nobility, middle and lower classes, and called each other ?friend in faith?(Gyou). However the society based on a rigid class system could not accept such a phenomenon.
Some upper class people, when they were baptized, freed their male and female servants because they learned that all human beings are equal regardless class and social position. With this Christian look on human beings the lower class people thought they were experiencing "earthly paradise". Korean society understood the relationship between male and female as vertical relationship of master-servant. But the Catholic Church advocated the equality between male and female and tried to promote women's social status, and a modern society based on gender equality.
4. New Cultural Awareness
In the context of the Korean traditional society the Church raised a new cultural awareness and carried it into practice. While Korean society was centered on Neo-Confucianism as the only acceptable cultural system, the Church advocated the respect for cultural pluralism and stressed cultural openness. In this respect, the Church's contribution to Korean traditional society and to modern cultural understanding including the approach to the trends of the world was highly recognized.
The Church also contributed much to the study and use of?Hangeul", the Korean alphabet. Books on the religion were written in Hangeul, not in Chinese characters. Hangeul grammar books and dictionaries were published by the Church.
The Church tried, despite persecution, to assist orphans with the help of the 'La Saint-Enfants' and cautiously attempted to develop a system of modern school education.
As it is mentioned above the impact of the Church on traditional Korean society was significant. Due to the harsh persecution, Church's function as an advocate for social progress in Korean society remained potential rather than active. Yet there is no doubt that the Church made a positive contribution to the progress of Korean history and participated in its modernization.