South Korea as the Catholic Church's Asian Tiger

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 12/24/2012 08:46:00 AM
Long lay the world in sin and error pining...

The Roman Catholic Church is savvy enough to know that its game is for the most part up in Western Europe. Lip service to a "Catholic revival" in that part of the world aside, we all know a declining market when we see one. Its resources are not really being used to fight a rearguard motion for a European reconquista. While there are some holdouts alike Poland, it's obviously in Eastern Europe. Nosediving church attendance, skyrocketing rates of illegitimacy and all the rest of it tell the tale. I fear that a Catholic revival in Europe is as much a lost cause as a surplus-running United States. At this rate, it will not be long before Catholic voices will start wondering why their headquarters remain in such an unappreciative continent when there are many other places where the Church would receive a much better reception. That is, what is the cost-benefit calculation of losing the "Roman" bit?

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn...

But, the Good News is that the Church still manages to gain adherents in developing parts of the world alike Africa and Asia, with the number of priests increasing to meet new demand. Just like any old business, the Catholic Church appreciates that this is a game of numbers--albeit its concern is saving the most souls as opposed to more temporal concerns alike ROI. Moreover, its "investment" in the developing world is more likely to pay dividends given the more promising demographics there of followers yet unborn. That said, Asia is a funky place to promote religion. Just as China is famous for its intellectual property, er, lapses, so is it known for its habit of ordaining fake bishops. Since the Communist Party regards all other possible sources of authority with suspicion, it is hard to imagine the world's most populous nation gaining many more converts.

South Korea, meanwhile, is highly atypical in many respects. It is an OECD member and thus considered by most as a developed country. Its population is comparatively small as well at under 50 million. Alike other Asian tigers, it has among the world's lowest fertility rates. You would think increasing affluence would render more Koreans less religious and its demographic profile less attractive to the Church, but surprise, surprise: In South Korea, Roman Catholicism has spread like wildfire in recent years. Unlike Europe that could certainly use an opiate for the masses given its less-than-stellar economic fortunes, the still-rising Koreans have turned to the Gospel. Fr. Pierro Gheddo of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions lays out the landscape:
There may be no other country in the world that over the past half century has seen growth as sustained as that of South Korea, including conversions to Christ. From 1960 to 2010, the number of inhabitants went from 23 to 48 million; per capita income from 1,300 to 19,500 dollars; Christians from 2 to 30 percent, of which about 10-11 percent, 5.5 million, are Catholic; there were 250 Korean priests, today there are 5,000.

I first went to South Korea in 1986 with Fr. Pino Cazzaniga, a missionary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions in Japan, who speaks Korean. Even back then it was a Church with many conversions, and it is still so today. Every parish has from 200 to 400 baptisms of converts from Buddhism each year. Most of the converts are city dwellers. Each year there are 130-150 new priests, one for every 1,110 baptized. In 2008, the proportion of Catholics exceeded 10 percent of South Koreans, and grows by about 3 percent each year. In 2009, the number of baptized reached 157,000, and 149 priests were ordained, 21 more than in 2008. More than two thirds of the priests are under the age of 40. "Over the past ten years, the Catholic Church in Korea has gone from three to five million faithful; in Seoul we are 14 percent," Cardinal Nicholas Cheong Jin-suk, archbishop of Seoul, has said in an interview.
It is certainly contentious to relate Europe's economic decline with its spiritual one so I won't even go there, but in South Korea's case you can make the opposite argument that secularization does not necessarily accompany economic progress. It appears increasingly prosperous Koreans have sought to find meaning beyond material well-being. As long as the Roman Catholic Church provides answers that are meaningful to them, it's a win-win proposition. Even for a centuries-old institution, it appreciates like pretty much everyone else that the future belongs to Asia.

And that is your religious political economy instalment for New Year's Eve 2012. A Merry Christmas to one and all from the IPE Zone...

...O night, O Holy Night, O night divine!