e-mail us
Korean paper stirs controversy

NCR Staff
St. Louis

When Kye Song Lee left South Korea for the United States 13 years ago, he had no idea he would become the focus of national controversy as editor and publisher of a Catholic newspaper seeking reforms in the Korean-American Catholic community.

He came to study, planning to get a master’s degree in business administration at St. Louis University, then return to his homeland. He hoped to expand a company he owned there, a manufacturer of medical equipment, into international trade.

Instead, he stayed in the United States, changed careers, eventually becoming something of a lightning rod for conflicts in the Korean-American Catholic church.

His story, though not typical of all Catholic Koreans who emigrate, illustrates some of the major themes at tension in this community that is growing within the United States. They are tensions that result from the clash of Korean tradition and its high regard for priests and the pull of a new freedom of expression Koreans have found in their new country.

Lee’s studies “took longer than I expected,” he said. “My children were growing up. I got involved in the newspaper business.” Lee was writing a weekly column on a variety of topics for a now-defunct daily Korean newspaper in Chicago. He and his wife, Subok Lee, have four children.

About eight years ago, Kye Song Lee founded a biweekly newspaper for some 7,000 Koreans in the Missouri area. Two years later, he started his moneymaker, the publication that keeps the others going -- a slick ad-packed national trade magazine called Beauty Times. It goes to Korean-owned businesses that supply the African-American beauty market. Koreans own about 60 percent of that market nationwide, he said.

Next Lee started two other magazines, neither profitable but both filling information gaps in the Korean-American publishing world. One, called The Flora, is a literary journal aimed at women. The other, which Lee founded in 1996, is called Catholic 21. It has about 7,000 readers, he said.

Lee’s Catholic 21 -- a name he chose to symbolize a new vision of church for the 21st century -- is highly controversial. Operating independently of the official church, it serves as counterpoint to two official Catholic newspapers published in Korea and distributed in the United States with special sections for U.S. news. One is published by the Seoul archdiocese, the other by the Taegu archdiocese, Lee said.

Catholic 21 has staunch defenders who say it plays a vital role as watchdog on Korean-American church life and critics who accuse it of being divisive, even anti-Catholic. Some critics, however, such as Fr. Paul D. Lee, a priest of the Washington archdiocese, acknowledge serious problems in the nation’s approximately 100 Korean-American Catholic communities. Fr. Lee and others familiar with those communities say the problems, in part, reflect the vital role of religion in the life of Korean-American immigrants.

An anomaly

Although the Catholic church is only about 200 years old in Korea and Protestantism about a hundred years younger, Korea is the most Christian nation in Asia except for the predominantly Catholic Philippines. Most Koreans are Buddhists, at least nominally, but Christianity has become a vibrant force, particularly in recent decades. Of South Korea’s more than 41 million people, about a quarter are Christians. Of that 10 million, about 2.5 million are Catholics. Korea’s current president, Kim Dae-jung, is a Roman Catholic.

Catholicism’s start in Korea is an anomaly. Korea is the only nation where Catholicism began without priests or missionaries. As Pope John Paul II told the story during a visit to Seoul in 1984, Koreans who learned about the faith from China sent a young man to Peking to talk with some priests. He was baptized and returned home in 1784, bringing books on Catholicism with him. Catholicism spread for more than 40 years without priests, except for a short period in which two Chinese missionaries played an active role. The first priests, French missionaries, arrived secretly in 1836, a time when Confucianism was the state religion and practicing Catholicism was illegal.

Once introduced, Catholicism “picked up momentum very fast,” Kye Song Lee said. “It was almost a spontaneous movement.” Protestantism has grown dramatically through mass revivals and other missionary efforts.

Fr. Lee said Christianity’s message of equality was “very liberating” to a rank-conscious people burdened by repressive structures. It was especially attractive to “people in the lower strata,” he said. Catholicism also “attracted a lot of scholars at the beginning,” he said. “A lot of intellectuals were fascinated by Catholicism.”

Before religious freedom was proclaimed in Korea in 1886, some 10,000 Korean Catholics were martyred. The martyrdoms occurred in an isolationist era when Korean leaders viewed the church as an extension of a foreign power, Kye Song Lee said. Pope John Paul canonized 93 Korean martyrs in 1984, all but one members of the laity. He also canonized three French bishops and seven priests who were beheaded after the missionaries’ presence was discovered.

Kye Song Lee was baptized about 40 years ago, along with his parents and five siblings, when he was in seventh grade. “We were very poor,” he said. “We went to the church for free groceries and grain. It was sent to Korea by the American Catholic church.”

“The Catholic church has tremendous prestige in Korea because it has taken a very active role in movements against oppressive regimes,” he said. “In the old days some truly great, brilliant and noble people became priests. But they are getting old, and many of the new recruits are not as good as their predecessors.”

Lee said the stage is set for trouble in the approximately 100 Korean-American Catholic communities in the United States because they are headed by priests sent from Korea on temporary assignments, generally for four-year stints. Korean-Americans are eager to assimilate into U.S. culture and value their religion highly, he said, but the priests are often isolated from their concerns.

The priests owe their allegiance to Korean dioceses and most speak little English, Lee said. In some cases, he said, they have been sent overseas to escape their problems at home. Although U.S. dioceses are supposed to exercise oversight, it is often lax, he said.

As a result, Lee told NCR, “the Korean Catholic community in the United States is in disorder. There have been many abuses of power, many grievances of lay people.” Even the best of the Korean priests are “detached from real life here,” he said. “They are not capable of helping the faithful grow into informed participants in the wider church life and in American society.”

The most flagrant clerical abuses, he said, involve either sex or money, including a practice among some priests of demanding large Mass stipends “as a kind of bribery.” Laity have complained of priests gaining considerable personal wealth at the expense of men and women who are struggling to raise families, he said.

The paper reported recent cases in which Korean priests working in America had allegedly engaged in affairs with married women. In one case, the paper reported, the priest returned to Korea after his lapses were exposed. In another case, the paper reported, the husband of a woman had sued a Colorado diocese over an alleged affair between his wife and a Korean priest.

A lead editorial examined the role of the free press in U.S. society, a freedom relatively new to Koreans, and Catholic 21’s determination to stand firm against efforts to suppress its voice. A second editorial traced a now-resolved conflict with archdiocesan officials in St. Louis after the paper -- mistakenly, Lee now says -- tried vainly to gain official status there.

No solution

While Fr. Lee readily acknowledges problems in Korean-American Catholic life, including the system of importing Korean priests, he regards Catholic 21 as anything but a solution. Fr. Lee was ordained in the United States 15 years ago, the first Korean-American to be ordained a priest in this country. Since then, about 30 others have been ordained, he said.

In a letter to NCR, he described Catholic 21 as “of poor quality and taste, lacking discretion or conciliatory spirit.” The priests the newspaper has criticized, he said, “may not be exactly perfect, but as public persons ... deserve some basic dignity and privacy.” Catholic 21, he said, has caused “unnecessary confusion, discord and even anger” among Korean-American Catholics.

Fr. Lee doesn’t regard celibacy or abuse of power as major problems for Korean priests -- no more significant, at least, than for U.S. priests. “The majority are very faithful,” he said. But loneliness and culture shock are big problems for those on temporary assignments, he said. “Priests come here reluctantly. They are put on pedestals in Korea, but over here it’s very different. Some of them are not very well treated by the people or by the dioceses.” Arrangements to send priests are usually between specific Korean and U.S. dioceses, he said. “There is no centralized control of personnel.”

Kun H. Park of Seattle, president of the 7-year-old North American Coalition of Korean Catholic Laity, rejected Fr. Lee’s criticisms of Catholic 21 as “typical” of complaints from clergy. His organization is a reform-oriented group that he describes as similar to Call to Action.

“It’s a very valuable newspaper,” he said. “There are pastoral abuses all over the country.” Many Korean Catholics support priests “blindly,” he said. When critical articles appear, “they are never willing to discuss the merits of a case.”

Park’s organization claims just 350 of an estimated 50,000 Korean Catholics in the United States. Although the group is small and has been criticized as “anti-Catholic” and “destructive,” its leaders feel it is addressing critical issues. It’s really just “a forum for speaking up ... to correct the mistakes that are being made,” he said.

Park, of Seattle, publishes a free paper for Asian-American youth, called Asian Focus.

Fr. Lee thinks the conflicts in Korean-American Catholic communities reflect, in part, the situation of new immigrants. “Problems get exaggerated in Korean-American religious communities because new immigrants tend to be isolated from the American mainstream,” he said. “A lot were professionals back home, but when they come here they cannot function as professionals. They find ways to defuse that tension. The church community becomes the center of their life. Sometimes they get very unreasonable.”

The difficulties of hardworking Korean-American immigrants has been widely reported. Most came after 1965 to seek better economic opportunities and have found their dreams hard to fulfill. As products of a rank-conscious Asian culture, Korean-Americans find that loss of status often creates psychological stress.

Language barriers

Many of the new immigrants -- nearly 600,000 as of the 1990 census -- are highly educated professionals, members of the Korean middle class, but barred here by language barriers from professional jobs. As a result, a high percentage of Korean men are self-employed. Racial tensions, often related to business operations, are common. During the 1992 riots in South Central Los Angeles, Korean-Americans were targets of African-American rage after four policemen accused of beating Rodney King, a black man, were acquitted. More than 600 Korean-American businesses were burned.

Fr. Lee said the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has done little so far to address problems among Korean-American Catholics and Catholic immigrants from other Asian countries. He hopes to attract other Korean-American priests -- those ordained here -- to a conference in Washington, possibly next year, to discuss concerns. “It could be an occasion for sharing the vision,” that is, developing an evangelization program for a nearly invisible minority in the U.S. Catholic church. He hopes to gain from U.S. bishops and their staff members in Washington insights into experiences of other immigrant Catholic groups. “I’d like to see the USCC [United States Catholic Conference] take a more active role, to make direct contact with the bishops’ conference in Korea and develop some unified personnel policies,” Fr. Lee said.

Meanwhile, Kye Song Lee has had troubles with the U.S. hierarchy, specifically with officials of the St. Louis archdiocese.

About two years ago, when attacks from his Korean-American critics became strong, Lee turned to the archdiocese for help, hoping for official recognition. After many letters back and forth, the diocese not only refused, but Archbishop Justin Rigali, speaking through his communications director, also demanded that the word Catholic, be removed from the paper’s name.

Following a stern four-page letter from Park this fall, the archdiocese apparently backed down. In a letter dated Oct. 22, Msgr. Dennis Delaney, the communications director, told Lee that as long as he makes it clear that the paper has no official ties to the archdiocese, officials would let the matter rest. Delaney noted that other publications, such as NCR, use Catholic in their titles yet operate independently of the church.

Lee was pleased with the comparison. “We like NCR,” he said. “That’s the reason we made our format the same.” He displayed a copy of Catholic 21, which strongly resembles NCR before its recent new design.

Of his effort to get official recognition, he now says, “I was so naive.” Koreans, he said, “have lived under oppressive regimes for a long time. It’s an ingrained habit to look for permission.”

His new approach, Lee thinks, is more American. “I am a Catholic. I will die as a Catholic. But I am not worried anymore about endorsement or permission from authority. I just do what I must do.”

National Catholic Reporter, January 8, 1999