As the 20th century came to an end, the number of Protestant Christians was estimated to be 12, 260,321 in the Republic of Korea. These figures were supplied by 17 of about 100 various Protestant denominations found in Korea to South Korea’s Ministry of Culture and tourism. The Catholic Church in the same country boasted a total of 4,071,560 members. These figures represent a remarkable transformation since 100 years earlier there were less Christianity followers in the country.
The Catholic Church in Korea was already a century old when Protestant missionaries made their way into the country. The Catholic Church faced walls of religious intolerance and the idea of a single God was foreign to the 18th century Koreans. The Protestants had a better experience since most of these impediments had been dealt with by the Catholics. This was among the factors that facilitated the faster spread of the protestant faith, not to mention their wider reach. One could even say the Catholics paved the way for them. The Catholic Church in Korea was founded in 1784 before a single Catholic missionary set foot into the country. This was made possible by Confucian literati. These individuals had been convinced by publications of the Jesuit missionary from China that rather than challenge Confucianism, Catholicism complemented it. It is important to note that after some time, problems emerged between Confucian rituals and Catholicism. For instance, in the Confucian tradition, ritual and force were the primary tools used to govern a state. The first Catholics in Korea refused to execute the mourning ceremony in the traditional manner. In addition, they held mass without government approval. This sadly led to the execution of two Catholics because it was stated that they destroyed ancestral tablets. In 1801, the growth of the Church hit a snag, as the tolerant king died and his predecessor was more ruthless. This led to several executions. In this dark time, imperialism was the salvation the church needed. The forceful entry of foreign countries into Korean territory put an end to the persecution of innocent subjects. In 1884, Protestants made their way into the country. Needless to say, there was rivalry between the two groups each claiming to be the right religion.
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As we evaluate Christianity in Korea, several questions arise. For instance, why did the converts begin choosing the Protestant rather than Catholic variety of Christianity? There are varied explanations to this phenomenon and some even claim that due to the invasion of Korea by the Japanese many sought solace in Christianity since the traditional ways had been wiped away. It is, however, vital to note that this does not explain why the Koreans did not turn to Buddhism and why they chose the Protestant faith. The impact of Christianity on the Korean population is undoubtedly immensurable. Christianity through the principle of original sin helped the converts escape the conundrum of trying to be perfect in the face of moral failure by abandoning the belief that humans can achieve perfection on their own. Christianity thus offered a novel solution – supernatural help from God above. The competitive edge the Protestants had over the Catholics in terms of infrastructure and business played a key role in increasing membership. The Protestant faith simply offered better opportunities and this played against the Catholic Church which had existed for longer in the country. This then begs the question how the Catholic Church intends to narrow the gap between its membership and the Protestant church? Catholic growth rates have improved since the 1970s and the best possible explanation lies in the fact that new policies have been adopted by the Catholic Church. For instance, the leadership is solidly Korean and mass is said in Korean rather than Latin.
Both the Catholic and Protestant church have impacted Korean converts right from their lifestyle to their political and economic environment. The protestant church acted as a front for commerce and led to the infrastructural development which eventually led to better livelihoods. The Catholic Church led to changes in traditional practices and as a whole, Christianity changed Korea and Koreans.