Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Perceptions of Korean Catholicism and Protestantism

In Korea, why are the numbers of Catholics increasing and the numbers of Protestants decreasing? A candidate for a master's degree at the Jesuit University in Seoul decided to find out, and wrote his thesis based on the results of his research. The results were picked up and published recently by the Yonhapnews Service in Seoul.

What he found out was that Catholicism as seen by most Koreans was more magnanimous, more lenient,  compared to Protestantism, making the Catholic Church a more attractive option for many desiring to join a Church.

 Korea is a land of  many religions and no religion, and did not  provide the writer with a reliable measuring standard for the data he had collected;  he turned to the United States and  the  distinction often made there between "strict" --authoritarian, doctrinal purity, obedience, enthusiasm for the teachings--and "tolerant"--relativism, pluralism, readiness to dialogue over differences.

It was obvious to the writer that  in contrast to the United States, the perceived tolerance  and magnanimous spirit of the Catholic Church here greatly helped recruit members for the Church. Excluding Catholics,  when Protestants, Buddhists and non-believers were asked  about Catholicism; 49 percent responded favorably, 13 percent responded unfavorably. Asking  Catholics, Buddhists and non-believers  what  they   thought about Protestantism, he found nearly a 20 percent favorable response, a 37 percent unfavorable response.  Based on this data from his research, the master's degree candidate concluded that in Korea, believers and potential believers prefer a tolerant and magnanimous Church over a strict Church. This, he believes, is the reason for the decrease in the numbers of Korean Protestants in contrast to the United States, where Church strictness tends to increase membership.

The news report ends by summing up the conclusion of the thesis: " Catholics in Korea in their faith life are lax and not unfriendly to the larger society;  a tolerant  Church is their trait while  Protestants come across as emotionally tight, not friendly to the larger society, a strict Church. This is the reason for the increase in Catholic membership."

Taking the two factors he chose to work with--Church strictness and Church tolerance--most researchers would probably find evidence to support the conclusion of the thesis. But there are other factors that enter into the  thinking of most Koreans which go unnoticed. The perception Koreans have of the Church no doubt helps the Church increase in numbers; the numbers of those who fall away may also indicate that what they thought Catholicism was like turned out to be different than expected. 
The  Catholicism that is perceived in Korea does not seem to ask as much from Christians;  a fact that is readily seen compared to  Protestants: no smoking, no drinking, tithing obligations, no traditional rites for ancestors and many more scheduled meetings, gives the impression of a very strict Church. Hopefully, the Catholic Church interest beyond the personal and to society will not be construed as being lax but will be seen as something integral to Christianity.

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