Questions and Answers on the “Coptic Martyrs”

Eamonn Clark, STL

It is in the news that Pope Francis is enrolling 21 men who were killed by ISIS some years ago into the Roman Martyrology.

Here are some questions and my own (quick but hopefully not sloppy) answers, and there are also some “arrows” for more reading.

What happened?

The basic story is that 21 Christian men were executed by ISIS on a beach in Libya in February of 2015. Some of them were calling on Christ as they were put to death. 20 of them were known to be Coptic Orthodox, one man, from Ghana, is less clearly identifiable as Coptic. It is not actually totally clear that the executions were strictly motivated by the religion of the men, nor is it so clear that each of the men went to their deaths voluntarily – these are two of the normal requirements for being recognized as a martyr. If anyone can help me with more details on this, I would be thankful.

Who are the Coptic Orthodox?

The story is very long. In short, the Coptic Orthodox Church is a schismatic group that split from Rome in the wake of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451) over the doctrine of Dyophysitism, which is the teaching that Christ is “in” or “has” two natures, a human nature and a Divine Nature, rather than being “of” these same two natures. This may seem unimportant, until you realize that we are talking about the fundamental character of Who and what exactly it is that we are worshipping – which is automatically a big deal. There were 13 Egyptian bishops who refused to accept the Chalcedonian formulation, protesting that the recently deceased bishop St. Cyril of Alexandria (Egyptian), had condemned those who held to this position in his 3rd anathema. (The issue here comes down to the precise meaning of the word “physis.”) In the end, the Egyptians were not persuaded by the other Fathers of the Council that Cyril was not a “Miaphysite” but was actually a Dyophysite using vague language. You will have to do the hard work of reading the history in detail to get more of the story, sorry.

Have there been attempts to reconcile with the Copts?

Yes, many. The issue of the Coptic schism was an agenda item of the Ecumenical Council of Florence (1431-1449). The Copts ultimately did not want to come back on board, despite their representatives at the Council wanting to do so. Pope Eugene IV wrote a “Bull of Union with the Copts” called “Cantate Domino,” which it turns out is very relevant for our consideration and which we will look at later. There is also a group of Coptic Catholics, who have reunited with Rome, and there were several joint declarations between the Holy See and the Coptic Orthodox some decades ago on Christology – and though they are significant steps toward unity, they did not use the magic words, “in two natures.”

What is the Roman Martyrology?

This is the Catholic Church’s official list of martyrs. It is not a list of all Catholic saints. However, one who is in the Martyrology is usually also revered liturgically as a Blessed or a Saint.

Have there been non-Catholics treated as saints before?

Yes. I know of a few, thanks to this article by Fr. Ed McNamara: St. Stephen of Perm (1340-1396), St. Anthony of Kiev (983-1073), St. Theodosius of Kiev (1029-1074), St. Sergius of Radonezh (1314-1392), and St. Gregory of Narek (950-1003). The latter has also been named as a Doctor of the Church. In these cases, as Fr. McNamara explains, given the complex historical circumstances and the time in which these men lived, union with Rome was not necessarily as clear-cut an issue as it is today. So maybe the better answer is, “No, but sort of.”

Are canonizations infallible?

This is a deeply disputed question. There is a whole book of essays recently published on this matter, which I have not read myself but can nevertheless recommend based on what I have read about it, here. The opinion which I take myself is, “No.” However, nobody will sin by venerating someone held up by Rome as a saint, including in the liturgy.

What about Eugene IV?

The Bull “Cantate Domino” does not mince words on the issue of non-Catholic martyrs. It says they don’t exist. Again, without getting into the settled debate over Feeneyism (yes, it is possible to be “in the Catholic Church” without necessarily manifesting this explicitly by outward signs), here is the relevant part of the text: “The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her; and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those remaining within this unity can profit by the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, their almsgivings, their other works of Christian piety and the duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.” This echoes St. Augustine’s teaching on the same question, along with a host of other Fathers.

What about Feeneyism?

Feeneyism is indeed wrong, that’s settled. But the entire point of canonizations is to hold up individuals as extraordinary examples of heroic Christian virtue. It strains credulity to think that this would be appropriate of anyone who has at least dubious Christology, and openly rejects the primacy of the See of Peter (the Pope of Rome).

Is this the only strange thing going on at the moment relating to canonizations in Rome?

No. But we will cross that bridge if and when we get there.

Aren’t you just being mean and nasty?

Maybe, but I am concerned with the integrity and meaning of canonizations and ultimately of their purpose, which is the proposal for the imitation of the lives of those who are canonized. To drive the point home: nobody should be Coptic Orthodox. And sure, it is possible that God could have worked an extraordinary grace in the souls of these individuals and brought them to Himself with a high amount of merit (awesome!), but that does not mean that they are fit for public veneration as saints in the Catholic Church. If you think I’m being mean and nasty, go read the link above on the Fathers and this question. I’ll stick with those guys.

End of Q and A.

There’s more to the story, and I hope the readership will point out if I am getting any details wrong. But this at least gets the discussion moving in the right way. There is plenty of good ecumenism going on, but I fear that this is not an example of it. The lines need to be very clear. This will mostly just confuse people in the long-term, it seems.

My own question is rhetorical, and I hope it’s not too biting… How is it that people who like the 1962 Roman Missal are “too divisive,” but people who openly reject the entire idea of Petrine primacy can be put into the Roman Martyrology?

St. Josaphat, Thief of Souls, pray for us! St. Mark the Evangelist, pray for us!

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