A Postscript on St. Gregory of Narek and the New Coptic Martyrs

All good things must come to an end, including my accidental series of posts on St. Gregory of Narek and the 21 New Coptic Martyrs (see here, here, and here). Before taking leave of this topic, I must state in no uncertain terms that neither my belief that the 21 men murdered by the Islamic State over a week ago are genuine martyrs, nor my unwillingness to descend into hysterics over St. Gregory of Narek’s elevation as a Doctor of the Church, is indicative of indifferentism. That all of the Apostolic churches — Orthodox and non-Orthodox — should be one with the See of St. Peter is a point of hope and prayer from which I have never reneged. The failure of some to draw a simple distinction between how the Catholic Church treats matters related to these separated churches and, say, Protestant and non-Christian sects is baffling. As Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P has argued in Rome and the Eastern Churches (2d ed. Ignatius Press 2010) and elsewhere, the Orthodox — and by extension the other Oriental churches — should be Rome’s primary ecumenical partner. Although I remain critical of the way in which Rome has, at times, approached one or more of these separated churches, particularly when these approaches have come at the expense of the sui iuris Catholic churches already in full communion with her, I see no point in waging an endless polemical battle against the Orthodox and Oriental churches. Yes, there are genuine doctrinal, theological, and ecclesiological disagreements which have to be dealt with. Yes, some of these are more complicated than others. However, if real progress toward reunification is to be made, it must be made with charity and humility, not invective and triumphalism.

With that out of the way, let me offer two online pieces worth reading and reflecting upon. Over at the now seemingly defunct web-log The Banana Republican there sits a treasure chest of historical and apologetic information related to East/West relations. The first post I want to draw your attention to, “Post-Schism Russian Orthodox Saints,” reveals that not only were Russian Catholics allowed to venerate a select number (25 to be exact) of Russian Orthodox saints, but that Pope Paul VI entered them on the Roman Calendar in 1969. (See, e.g., St. Sergius of Radonezh on September 25.) Lest some traditional Catholics conclude that this decision was a radical innovation engineered by an ecumenically intoxicated Paul VI, 21 of those 25 saints had already been approved for veneration by Pope Pius XII in 1940. This decision is consistent with the increasingly prevalent view that the Great Schism did not occur, or at least did not occur in full, in 1054 but rather took centuries to fully manifest itself. As for recognizing further Russian Orthodox saints, Fr. Cyril Korolevsky, in an article which appeared in the July 1946 issue of the Eastern Churches Quarterly, opined that the recognition of these holy Russian souls “does not exclude the possibility of still other Russian saints being admitted when more progress has been made in the study of Slav hagiography.” Could not this same generous, but mindful, approach be taken with respect to saints of other Eastern churches as well?

The second piece from The Banana Republican — one which goes directly to the controversy over acknowledging the New Coptic Martyrs as true martyrs — is actually a translation of a section from Fr. Rene Hedde, O.P’s 1928 article, “Martyre,” from the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique. I will quote the excerpt in full:

9. Heretical and schismatic false martyrs (c. XX). – We can distinguish two cases, one in which the heretic dies to defend his heresy, or one in which he dies for a doctrine common with the true faith.

The second case is more interesting, but even then the victim will not be considered a martyr, for, says Benedict XIV, though he died for the truth, he did not die for the truth given by faith, since he has no faith. At the same time he admitted in a heretic who denies a point of faith, a supernatural habitus, but informed by faith; this view is widely rejected by theologians. He who has no faith, cannot die for the faith. Benedict XIV then speaks of the heretic invincibiliter, that is to say, of he who is in his error “in good faith” and if he dies for a true point [article] of faith, can he regarded as a martyr? Benedict XIV responds with an important distinction: he will be coram Deo, but not coram Ecclesia. He will be coram Deo, provided he is habitually disposed to believe anything that would be proposed by the legitimate authority, because he is not culpable according to the word of St. John: “Si non venissem et locutus fuissem eis, peccatum non haberent,” XV, 22; he would not be a martyr coram Ecclesia, which judges from the outside, and which, noting his external heresy, is reduced to speculate his internal heresy. We see how this distinction proposed by the eminent canon lawyer can give satisfaction to the most difficult [questions]. But once it is admissible to recognize as a martyr coram Deo the heretic invincibiliter who dies to defend a doctrine common with Catholic truth, does she not need to recognize him even if he dies with the same sincerity to defend an erroneous assertion that he believes belong to the Christian Credo? We see from these examples how the concept of martyrdom that, at first sight, seems very clear and sharply defined, in reality poses many questions that are difficult to answer with certainty.

Following the thinking of Pope Benedict XIV, although it may not be possible for the Catholic Church to officially recognize the New Coptic Martyrs, that does not mean they are not true martyrs who, even at this very moment, stand worshiping before the Throne of God and interceding on behalf of the whole world.

6 comments

  1. Having recently finished recording that Audiobook on the Authority of the Fathers, which is based off a pre vatican II Manual of Patristic Theology, St. Gregory Narek would appear to meet the criteria of a Doctor which is three fold:

    Eminent Ecclesial Learning, Remarkable Holiness of Life, and Express approbation of the Church (which comes with the declaration of him being a Doctor).

    I so far have only been able to see bits and pieces of his work, and no doubt now that he is a Doctor of the Church there will probably be great interest in publishing both his life and work in English written by Catholics.

  2. Part of the reason why so many trads appear to be denying that Orthodox or Oriental (i.e., non-Chalcidonian) Christians can be martyrs, can be explained by their pre-suppositions.

    In the main, trads have taken up the theological ‘stone which the builders rejected’, which is to say, post-Thomistic manualism. Now, I see nothing wrong with manualism per se: it is an organized method by which a great deal of information can be taught quickly. In fact, the legal indices which have been present in West Publishing Company and Matthew Bender for the last century or so show that, at least for the legal profession, the Aristotelian method of categorization remains the most economical and elegant method of organizing information.

    The problem is, if I may give an example from a profession with which you have some small experience (IRONY ALERT! IRONY ALERT!), just as a law student is hampered by reading only the hornbooks, and not the cases themselves, so your average would-be Thomist is hampered by reading the Summa Theologiae, or its subsequent manuals, right down to the Baltimore Catechism, without also reading the Scriptures, the Fathers, the Councils, and the Saints.

    So, Fat Tommy (aka St. Thomas Aquinas), in the context of the fire/food fight between East and West at that time, and all of his followers thereafter, saith (with Kipling) that “East is East and West is West/And never the twain shall meet.” And, of course, those in the East, with their several grudges, will say the same, for their own reasons. All of this falls within the category that the late Richard Adams described as “…true, but unhelpful.”

    While the Second Vatican Council’s statement on Ecumenism, and those pontiffs who came after, are agreed that Orthodox and Oriental Christians have valid sacraments, and the same Apostolic Succession and Tradition, the trads seem to be making the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc to be a point of principle, and reject the teachings of that Council, and those pontiffs. Of course, by that standard, they are acting like Protestants, in that they are raising their Personal Judgments above their alleged duty of submission of mind to the Popes and to the Councils, even including Vatican II.

    As for me, I’m making popcorn (preferably white corn, in a mix of olive oil and butter, popped in a kettle, with sea salt and mignonette pepper added after popping), and enjoying the free entertainment.

    1. Yes, freshly popped popcorn IS something that almost everyone can agree on. And if you omit the olive oil and butter, but keep the spices and salt, it’s Lenten, even by full metal Orthodox standards.

    1. I am pleased to see the quotation from the DTC. It is the beginning of what I desired when I commented two posts ago.

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