Pope’s Korea visit holds lessons for West’s struggling church

The following op-ed was originally written for translation into Korean for Newsweek Korea.

Judging by the ecstatic reaction to his visit that ended Monday, Pope Francis has no shortage of admirers in South Korea. Up to one million people reportedly crowded into Gwanghwamun for Saturday’s Mass to beautify 124 Korean martyrs, one of the highlights of the visit. The pontiff’s popularity, which is replicated right around world, is understandable. In his public pronouncements, Francis has tended to emphasis uncontentious Christians principals, such as charity and compassion. By appearing to strike a less judgmental tone than his predecessors, he has even managed to attract the admiration of many liberal non-believers normally disdainful of organized religion. In South Korea, the interest in and enthusiasm for his visit clearly extended well beyond the devotedly Catholic.

While respect for the current pontiff may be widespread across different countries, however, Korea’s relationship with the Catholic Church is far from typical. It is a cliche among those familiar with the country to say that Korea is a land of contradictions. But, once again, this characterization is apt in describing Korea’s relationship with Catholicism and religion generally. By Western standards, Korea has a high number of citizens who profess no religion at all. At the last census in 2005, almost half of South Koreans said they did not belong to any religion, a greater portion than in the U.S., UK and France.

At the same, the pope’s first trip to Asia was to country where Catholicism is on the ascent, albeit from a modest base (about 10 percent of the population is Catholic.) At a time of declining religiosity across the developed world, the church in Korea has managed to consistently grow its flock. The number of Catholics has almost tripled since the mid-80s. And the trend shows little sign of receding. The number of Catholics and new ordinations in the country both grew last year, according to the church authorities.

In the UK, by contrast, the number of ordinations last year was just a tenth of the figure in 1965. In my own country, Ireland, the shortage of vocations to the priesthood is such that the Association of Catholic Priests has called for the church to allow women and married priests, which would be a break from more than 2,000 years of tradition.

“The reality is that in 20 years there will be few priests in Ireland and those that are still standing will be mainly in their 70s,” wrote one Irish priest in an article posted on the association’s website in June.

Along with the almost inevitable secularization that accompanies increased wealth, Ireland’s church has had to grapple with the fallout of child sex abuse scandals involving members of the clergy. Compounding the public’s revulsion and disillusionment, the church authorities were found to have covered up numerous such crimes against children.

It is not difficult to identity reasons for the decline of the church in Ireland or other Western countries. The more intriguing question is: what makes Korea, a rich, modern country, so different from its peers across the developed world?

One possible explanation for the church’s enduring popularity, say some experts, is its role in political and social activism.

“Several factors lie behind the rapid growth of the Catholic Church in Korea in recent decades: for example, its active support of the pro-democracy movement in the South in the 1970s and 80s, enabling it to win the hearts and minds of a great many Koreans, especially of the intelligentsia,” Timothy Lee, a professor at Brite Divinity School in Texas, told me as I was researching an article on the pope’s visit.

Professor Lee further speculated that the church had benefited from “having kept itself free from major scandals, especially of sexual and financial kinds; (and) its respectful attitude toward other religions, especially Confucianism and Buddhism.”

Of course, activism is a double edged sword. A cause that impresses one person might just as easily alienate another. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the church in Korea has done something right in terms of maintaining its relevance for a wealthy and educated citizenry.

Whatever the reason for the growth of Catholicism, Korea surely offers lessons for church authorities anywhere the faith is in decline. Whether in Dublin or Detroit, Catholic leaders hoping to revive the fortunes of the church could do worse than look to their counterparts in Northeast Asia.

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