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.