An unexpected flood of new traffic—coupled with numerous e-mails, texts, and social-media messages—seems to indicate that I touched a few nerves (and hopefully a handful of minds) with my reflections on the 21 New Coptic Martyrs and, more recently, St. Gregory of Narek’s elevation as a Doctor of the Church. Some have opined that my explanations on their eternal status are “unsatisfactory,” even “problematic.” The problem is that I do not have any “explanations” in a precise sense, only thoughts on the complex and messy realities of East/West ecclesial affairs. My original intention with both posts was to raise some key points that have to be taken into account before delivering apodictic statements which hold, for example, that the 21 men murdered by the Islamic State just over a week ago are “definitely not martyrs” or that Gregory of Narek is unworthy of both the title “saint” and “doctor.” To be honest, I don’t have a problem with fellow Catholics who want to hold those views as matters of private opinion. Expressing them loudly in public, however, strikes me as temerarious. If, for instance, St. Gregory of Narek is neither a saint nor doctor, do these earthly “keepers of the keys” to Heaven’s gate intend to stroll down (or, more likely, fly over) to the nearest Armenian Catholic parish and strip the insides of any venerated images of St. Gregory? Moreover, do they plan to write Rome protesting the dozens—perhaps hundreds—of openly venerated Eastern saints who lived and died outside of the visible borders of the Catholic Church? The Second Sunday of Lent for Byzantine Catholics using the Gregorian Calendar is just around the corner. Quick, there is no time to lose: stop these misguided souls before they go singing stichera and troparia to St. Gregory Palamas at Saturday Vespers and Sunday Matins. And by no means must you let these lost easterners, dancing haplessly as they do on the devil’s strings, press their erroneous lips against the image of a man who surely died with the sin of heresy and schism on his dirty black soul. If your municipality has a Greek Catholic parish in its vicinity which intends to honor Palamas, then I assure you it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Day of Judgment than for that city.
Sarcasm aside, it seems to me that those who wish to shut the doors of sainthood on any man, woman, or child who lived and died outside of visible communion with Rome ought to busy their pens and take into consideration the centuries upon centuries of ecclesial praxis which has allowed the sui iuris churches to retain and venerate “heretical” and/or “schismatic” pseudo-saints. With respect to St. Gregory of Narek and the Armenians, it is to be hoped that any such thoughtful declaration concerning them both will account for, inter alia, the rabidly anti-Nestorian position of the Armenian Church despite its confused rejection of Chalcedon; the fraternal bonds which existed between Latin Catholics and Armenians during the time of the Crusades; the fact that a portion of the Armenian Church was reconciled with Rome for 300 years before the Council of Florence; and that even after the establishment of the Armenian Catholic Church in 1749, Catholic and Armenian Christians have retained close ties, up to officially recognizing that the doctrinal disagreements surrounding Chalcedonian Christology are a non-issue. Also, since there are some e-Inquisitors on the loose, promoting the idea that recognizing St. Gregory of Narek as a Doctor means “it is ok to be wrong about who God is,” I say let them explain to all the heresy in this passage from his works: “The properties of both Natures, without any change, admixture, or alteration, are preserved unfused, and are unspeakably united, in a manner above all common union, in the one Son, and the one Lord Jesus Christ, Who is of Two Perfect Natures.” I doubt a majority of the bishops of the world hold to such a sound Christological formula.
As for the New Coptic Martyrs, I am not sure much more needs to be said on them beyond my original statement that the Roman Catholic Church has no business officially recognizing them as martyrs, at least not until full communion with the Coptic Orthodox Church is restored. (As of this moment I have not heard of any plans for the Coptic Catholic Church to officially recognize them as such.) Of course, some remain perturbed that the term “martyr” should be applied to those 21 men at all. Others, thankfully, have been thinking through the matter with a bit more rigor, wondering if perhaps there isn’t a legitimate development to be had in our present understanding of “Baptism of Blood” which might find that any sin which sat upon the souls of those 21 men were remitted at the time of their martyrdom, including the sins of schism and heresy (though I harbor strong doubts that any of them were guilty of such sins). An objection might be registered here that such a “Baptism of Blood” is only available for those who die for the Catholic Faith. But does the Islamic State make such distinctions? If, by unhappy chance, those 21 men were Coptic Catholics, they would have been treated no differently; the Islamic State’s hatred for Christ and His followers—even those who follow Him imperfectly—would remain the same. Odium fidei is still present.