The headline statistics are, admittedly, impressive. According to South Korea’s Catholic Pastoral Institute, Church membership in the country rose by 48.6 per cent between 1999 and 2018; Suwon diocese reports a phenomenal hike of 89.1 per cent. Altogether 5,866,510 South Koreans identify as Catholics – that’s 11.1 per cent of the population – and all during a period when Protestant expansion has become sluggish.
A sharp-eyed analyst has plenty to grumble about, though. Most of the growth occurred in the earlier part of the period and, distressingly, weekly attendance at Mass has not followed quite so spectacular a trajectory.
It declined from 29.5 per cent to 18.3 per cent; alas, the kids aren’t keeping up with their mums and grandpas when it comes to putting on their Sunday best.
Clergy are still performing well, though, and South Korea has seen a 52 per cent rise in the number of priests (there are now 4,456 of them, many increasingly involved in overseas missionary work). Less happily, seminary numbers are dropping off.
In a global context, none of this is disastrous. Seventy-five per cent of US Catholics turned up at church every Sunday in 1955, and Gallup tells us this had sunk to 39 per cent in 2017. Countries that have endured scandals and crises have really felt the crunch. In 1979, weekly attendance hovered around 80 per cent per cent in Ireland. By the time of the 2016 census, it was down to 35 per cent (just 20 per cent in Dublin archdiocese). Even the most obvious heartlands have endured tough times. The Pew Research Center revealed that the weekly attendance of the faithful in Italy was down to 27 per cent in 2018. If you want A-plus numbers (70 per cent and above) you have to look to Africa.
It’s important, though, not to panic about everything turning lukewarm in South Korea. Catholicism there has always been idiosyncratic. It started out, in the 1780s, as an elite operation: attracting intellectuals who were tired of neo-Confucian orthodoxy and wanted access to new ideas. It was evangelisation via books in the early days, and this was sufficient to allow survival despite horrific persecution.
More recently, the draw of Catholicism has retained a solidly cultural appeal. The role played by the Church in supporting democracy and sweeping away those noxious dictators during the 1970s and 1980s won it great respect throughout the country.
Even today, its activism is appreciated. Plans for gondola lifts threatening the ecology of Seoraksan National Park? Something must be done to ease tensions with the neighbours to the north? Who ya gonna call? The Catholic Church, of course, and it seems that this position of influence is a good basis for the domestic evangelisation that is urgently required. After all, for theological reasons that require no repetition, turning up regularly for Mass is the sine qua non of authentic Catholicism. South Korea will figure this out.