Dog Meat and the Catholic Church of South Korea

Dog Meat and the Catholic Church of South Korea

There is a newly awakened fervor about the Catholic Church in South Korea. In February, the Archbishop Andrew Yeom Soo-jung of Seoul had the high honor of becoming one of 19 new cardinals, joining the College of Cardinals at the consistory in Rome.  He promised to “make efforts to realize Pope Francis’ vision of a Church toiling for the poor and those on the margins of society and to make it a Church serving the community. I think the Pope appointed me to the post to make me effectively carry out the mission of the Church.” He later told the Vatican’s Fides News, “I would like to be a gentle shepherd who cares for every lamb of the flock, capable of holding together the whole flock.”

In August, Pope Francis, the first pope in 25 years to visit South Korea, arrived to a rhapsodic welcome, and electrified the country’s 5.1 million Catholics, as well as the non-Catholics, with his notably humble presence. The centerpiece of the five-day trip was the beatification of 124 Korean martyrs. And as is his custom, he spoke about the most vulnerable, the poor, and the weak. Father Paul Lee, a pastor in Maryland, said,  “The Catholic Church is growing, with many adult converts, especially among the educated classes, and they are young, professional people…One reason is that the Church has been a very strong and consistent voice for the poor, the oppressed and the workers, and this has given the Church a great deal of credibility.”

Except when it comes to the intimate relationship between the Roman Catholic Church in Korea and the unspeakably unholy dog meat trade.

Along the papal parade, protesters held up a banner written in Spanish, the Pope’s native tongue, which said, “El Papa, los sacerdotes y los creyentes, por favor, pogan un fin a la matanza y consumo de perros,” which means, “Pope, priests and followers, please put an end to the slaughter and consumption of dogs.”

Not only is dog meat, often referred to euphemistically as “nutritious soup,” often served at church charity functions, such as All Saints’ Day feasts, much to the horror of many congregants who have reached out to South Korean animal-protection organizations for help, but some clergy in fact breed dogs themselves for slaughter. Many of the churches have received a barrage of criticism from devoted church members, demanding the removal of dog meat from any church event.

A well-documented incident took place at the Hong Eun Dong Church, which intended to sell dog meat at a school playground. The church bazaar’s theme was “Love and Sharing.” Fortunately, when Korea Animal Rights Advocates (KARA) intervened, the selling of dog meat was cancelled. KARA has also successfully blocked the sale of dog meat at other church functions.

A few years ago, while visiting a small dog farm in Masuk, about 30 miles east of Seoul, I was startled to hear the farmer talk about the local church as a big buyer of his, especially for its charity affairs, when great quantities of dog meat are purchased from his farm.

Church leaders, unlike many others in South Korean society, openly and unashamedly, express their passion for eating dog meat. It has been such a widespread practice in churches that it is considered a kind of “tradition” or a “dog meat-eating culture.”

The consuming of dog meat among the Korean Catholic clergy is believed to have begun when Catholics were being persecuted in the 19th century, and many fled to the mountains, where, because of a lack of protein, ate dogs. And it is said that when the majority of French missionaries first came to Korea after the 1886 establishment of relations between France and Joseon Dynasty, poor church members wanted to welcome them but had little to offer, so they killed their own dogs to serve them.

More recently, in an interview with a Korean newspaper, Coadjutor Bishop Linus Lee Seong-hyo, of Suwon-city Parish Church, said that his favorite “health food” is dog meat and revealed that his hobby is persuading foreign bishops visiting Korea to try it. Apparently, the French priests have found it very much to their liking.

And yet one priest, Kim In-Guk, from Okcheon Catholic Church, interviewed, said, “There are so many things to eat other than that, so why do we have to eat dogs?

The estimated $2 billion dollar-a-year dog meat industry extinguishes the lives of approximately two million dogs for meat—100,000 tons—and professed health tonics called gaesoju, according to government figures. Dog meat consumption may be declining, and only a small percentage of Koreans eat dog meat regularly, but the practice remains pervasive. Dogs are killed with high-voltage electrocution, from which they don’t die immediately, are hanged, beaten to death with a metal pipe, hammer, or club, frequently have their throats slashed, followed by being bled out. They are thrown into a tub of boiling water, then into a rotating drum for the removal of their fur, and finally blowtorched, often while still alive. And perhaps most insidious of all is the nightmarish fiction, fueled by profit, that the more suffering endured during slaughter, the more tender the meat and more potent the so-called medicinal properties.

Such treatment of animals not only diminishes South Korea in the eyes of the world community, but also makes a mockery of the Roman Catholic Church as a protector and defender of a society’s most defenseless. In the words of Pope Benedict XV, who, in 1915, instructed priests to support the Italian SPCA, “that they may offer to the animals refuge from every suspicion of roughness, cruelty, or barbarism, and lead men to understand from the beauty of creation something of the infinite perfection of their Creator.” Cardinal John Henry Newman once said, “Animals have done us no harm and they have no power of resistance…There is something so very dreadful…in tormenting those who have never harmed us, who cannot defend themselves, who are utterly in our power.” And according to His Holiness Pope John Paul II, all living beings came into being because of the “breath” of God. St. Francis of Assisi called animals “brother” and “sister.”

Pope Francis—the first to boldly choose the name of Francis in honor of the revered Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals and ecology and a celebrated champion of the poor—surprised everyone when he famously broke ceremonial rules by allowing Asia, a guide dog for an Italian radio journalist, into the Vatican’s audience hall and issued a special blessing for her.

In his first homily, the pontiff said, “The vocation of being a ‘protector’…means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live…In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts.”

In Pope Francis, one hears the echo of St. Francis of Assisi himself—to respect all life, and that it is the moral responsibility of the powerful to protect the undefended, the powerless, and the vulnerable.

Ending the dog meat industry would provide the promising crescendo of real and lasting change and elevate South Korea’s ethical standing in the eyes of the world. Surely those who believe in the moral life would denounce the appalling connection between the Roman Catholic Church in Korea and the gruesome dog meat industry. It is antithetical to redemptive love and religious philosophical teachings and traditions, which counsel to live compassionately, and that the powerful protect the weak.

IDA is part of an international alliance of animal-protection organizations working to find humane, sustainable, and economically viable solutions to South Korea’s dog and cat meat trade, and will work in concert with South Korean organizations to urge the Korean Catholic clergy to end its involvement with the dog meat trade.

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