Confucians confront Catholicism in eighteenth-century Korea
Two centuries ago a few young Confucian students in Korea were converted to Catholicism through books written in Chinese decades earlier by Jesuit missionaries in China. Those first Korean Catholics accepted Matteo Ricci's argument that Catholicism and Confucianism were compatible. The majority of their contemporaries did not agree. The result was a confrontation that brought disgrace and death to that small band of Korean Catholics. Most Korean Neo-Confucians came away from that first encounter with Western religion convinced that Catholicism was a pernicious force threatening their most treasured values.The Jesuit missionaries offered Korea what they believed was an intertwined, indivisible combination of advanced astronomical science, rational Thomistic philosophy, and the divinely revealed dogmas of their Christian faith. Orthodox Neo-Confucian Koreans accepted Western calendrical technology but rejected the attempt to link scientific accuracy and religious faith.The Jesuit arguments were based on specific assumptions about the nature of man and the universe which their Neo-Confucian readers did not share. In cosmology, philosophy, and theology, the analytical approach and vocabulary of the European missionaries denied the fundamental ontological cosmic unity which provided the metaphysical foundation for Confucian values.Catholic doctrines of God and the afterlife, as well as Jesuit concepts of the cosmos and cognition, appeared to orthodox Neo-Confucians to be rooted in a selfish orientation toward the individual rather than the community, toward man as apart from the cosmos instead of as a part of the universal natural order. Most eighteenth-century Koreans feared that if Catholicism continued to spread, men would turn their backs on their parents, their ancestors, their communities, their society, and their government to seek personal salvation.The Jesuit missionaries in China expected their Neo-Confucian audience to be converted to Catholicism by the accomplishments of European science and the precision of Thomistic logic. Koreans examined instead the moral consequences of Catholic doctrinal claims. Most decided that Catholic dogma encouraged selfish individuality and therefore was an intolerable challenge to the fundamental moral values of Confucian civilization. Those few who disagreed and converted to Catholicism paid dearly for their departure from the way of their forefathers.
- History