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Have Korea's Protesting Priests Chosen the Right Fights?
By Joshua Snyder
Special Contribution
About 10,000 protesters stage a candlelight vigil to protest against South Korea-U.S. agreement on the import expansion of U.S. beef in Seoul May 2, 2008. Photo Courtesy of Reuter Pictures

The sight of Catholic priests leading the demonstrations in opposition to President Lee Myung-bak and the importation of American beef may have come as a surprise to many. Earlier, the same Catholic Priests' Association for Justice led the fight to expose the Samsung conglomerate's alleged slush funds and more recently the same group has taken up the cause against President Lee's Grand Canal project. Such social activism among Catholic clergy is not surprising to those with knowledge of the history of the Catholic Church, both in Korea, and in general.

The history of the Korean Catholic Church is unique in the world. As Pope John Paul II noted on his visit in 1984 for the canonization of Saint Andrew Kim Taegon and the 103 Martyrs of Korea, the first such ceremony ever conducted outside of the Vatican, the Catholic Church was established in Korea by an act of "self-evangelization." In 1784, Korean scholars brought the Catholic Faith back from visits to China in the form of tracts written in Chinese more than by Fr. Matteo Ricci, S.J., who styled himself the "Western Confucian" and gave the West not only the Latinized names by which Confucius and Mencius are known but also their teachings, translated into Latin. He gave the East a reformed calendar and the names of the days of the week as they are known in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese today. These Korean scholars established what Protestants might call "home churches" until the priesthood and sacraments vital to the Catholic Faith arrived a few years later, secretly with French missionaries. The Eighteenth Century saw some 10,000 Korean Catholic martyrs. Religious freedom was finally granted in the 1880s, after which American Protestant missionaries arrived.

Catholic priests were at the forefront of the democratization movement of the 1980s. Their witness in the cause of justice and freedom led to many conversions, among them ex-Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun. But the Church is not merely the province of liberals; both Park Geun-hye and Lee Hoi-chang are Catholic as well. In fact, the Catholic Church in Korea has the curious of situation of having more people report themselves as Catholic to the census bureau than do to the country's parishes. The Catholic Church is held in such high esteem here that many non-Catholics Korean confess themselves as Catholics to government census-takers.

While the Catholic participation in the democratization may seem an anomaly to Westerners, largely ignorant of their own civilization's history and relying on movies like The DaVinci Code for their knowledge of the past, it should not be. Korean students, I have found, unlike even educated Westerners, are well aware of the story of Saint Ambrose, merely the Bishop of Milan, forcing the Emperor Theodosius, the most powerful man in the Roman world, to do humiliating public penance for the slaughter of civilians in Thessalonica in 390 A.D.

In one of the greatest stories seldom told, Roman slavery was eliminated during what Protestants in Northern Europe would later libel as the "Dark Ages." During the late Middle Ages, it was the Scholastic friars of the School of Salamanca who would first lay down the principles of economic freedom in a systematic way. In the New World shortly after its conquest by Spain, the towering figure of Fray Bartolome de las Casas established himself as the defender of the Indians and one of the formulators of what we know call "human rights." Closer to our own times, the "Lion of Muenster," Blessed Cardinal Clemens August von Galen, called "most relentless opponent of Nazism" by the New York Times in 1942, opposed Hitler's policy toward the Jews and the disabled, only to have his own Cathedral bombed by the Allies. Across Europe, 2000 Catholic priests died in Hilter's death camps, among them Saint Maximilian Kolbe. As the Korean democratization movement was being born, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was defending his people, appealing in vain to President Jimmy Carter to stop sending American arms to his country's paramilitaries, only to be assassinated.

So, Korea's Catholic Priests' Association for Justice is only acting in a long tradition of Catholic social justice. But have they chosen the right fight?

There is a much greater existential threat facing Korea than Samsung, Mad Cow Disease, the Grand Canal. Every year in Korea, between 1.5 and 2 million Koreans are murdered in the womb by "doctors" at their own parents consent. This holocaust occurs in a country where abortion is illegal, but where authorities and it often seems even Catholic priests, turn a blind eye. For every Korean baby born, three are denied the right to life. Korea aborts more of its babies than does America, a country with six times the population and where legal abortion is the law of the land. Where are the demonstrations in front of Korea's abortuaries?

And let us not forget that Korea is the country with world's lowest birthrate, not to mention the OECD's highest suicide rate. The majority of new Korean families now opt for only one child. Were the priests to be truly counter-cultural and revolutionary, they would not be preaching cheap nationalism but Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI's revolutionary encyclical affirming two millennia of Christian opposition to artificial birth control. What is the use of nationalism in a country in terminal demographic decline? A country which may well have aborted, contracepted, and sterilized itself out of existence by the end of the century?

Nationalism is self-love, love of people similar to one's self. Patriotism is genuine love, love of patria, one's land and one's ancestors. The Confucian knows that love of ancestors requires descendants, which Korea is sorely lacking. "Demographics is destiny," it is said, and at the going rate Koreans are destined to go the way of the Hittites or Manchus, once great races now vanished from the Earth. Korea's Catholic priests, should they choose patriotism over nationalism, could do much to reverse this trend.

Recently on his trip to Australia for World Youth Day, Pope Benedict XVI called on young people to reject "blind conformity to the spirit of this age." Korea's priests can call on Korean Catholics and others, especially the young, to reject the materialistic "spirit of this age" which focuses quantifiable things like possessions, grades and money, and redirect their attention to what American conservative philosopher Russell Kirk called the "permanent things," chief among them being family and children.

Korea's Catholic priests could forcefully preach Catholic teaching on the intrinsically evilness of abortion, contraception, and sterilization. Among Catholics we could see young families with more than one or two children, the future of Korea. Seeing the large, happy families that were not long ago the norm in Korea could cause others, Protestants and Buddhists as well as the non-religious, to emulate them by renouncing short-term material happiness for the eternal happiness that comes from having many children. Doing so might just mean that there will be a Korea in the century to come.

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Mr. Joshua Snyder, American Catholic son-in-law of Korea, lives with his wife and two children in Pohang, where he serves as an assistant visiting professor of English at a science and technology university. He blogs at The Western Confucian






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