On the 21 New Coptic Martyrs

The tragic and brutal slaying of 21 Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Christians at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (popularly known as ISIS) has generated worldwide outrage, at least in religious circles. Setting aside the insane rantings of some evangelicals who deny these heroic souls the title “Christian,” the vast majority of Christians have lauded these men for “bear[ing] witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom [they] are united in charity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2473). Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental Christians around the world have gone a step further, referring to these men as “New Martyrs.” Here are Pope Francis’s remarks on their death:

I allow myself to make use of my mother language [Spanish] to express a deep and sad sentiment. I could read today on the execution of these 20, 21, 22 Coptic Christians. They said solely, “Jesus, help me.” They were murdered by the mere fact that they were Christians. You, brother [speaking to the moderator of the church of Scotland], spoke in your address of what is happening in the land of Jesus. The blood of our Christian brothers is a screaming testimony. Whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans, it does not matter: they are Christians. And the blood is the same, the blood confesses Christ. Recalling these brothers who were killed by the mere fact of confessing Christ, I ask that we encourage ourselves mutually to move forward with this ecumenism that is inspiring us, the ecumenism of blood. The martyrs belong to all Christians.

While questions might be asked about what precisely the Pope meant by the expression “ecumenism of blood,” it appears quite clear that the Holy Father, at least in his private opinion, believes that these men are true martyrs and thus joined to that great chain of witnesses in Heaven who continually pray for the Church and all mankind. Of course, what that means with respect to how or if the Catholic Church should officially recognize these murdered Coptic Christians as martyrs is a fraught question. For better or worse, it’s a question few are wrestling with right now, either out of respect for the memories of those slain or an understandable, though perhaps misplaced, belief that confessional boundaries and the divides which keep so many Eastern Christian churches out of communion with Rome simply do not matter.

Over at his blog, Mutual Enrichment, Fr. John Hunwicke reminds us that Pope John Paul II “remarked that the twentieth century had known more martyrs than any other period of the Church’s history; and urged an ecumenical aspect to the commemoration by all Christians of the martyrs.” Hunwicke continues by mentioning that if he were pope, he’d “put into [his] church a photograph of those Egyptian peasants kneeling in the sand, with a candle stand in front of it” before solemnly concluding with Novi Martyres Coptici, orate pro nobis.

Other Catholics are taking a more cautious approach. Stomachosus, in a reflection for The Josias entitled “Can Non-Catholics be Martyrs?,” argues that that the 21 Copts killed are not martyrs in a full or complete sense on the basis of what St. Thomas Aquinas—and to some extent the Council of Florence’s Bull on Union with the Copts—teaches about Catholic martyrdom. There are good reasons to be circumspect on this matter, but not rigid. To take too hard of a line on the Coptic Orthodox Church and her members would seem to militate against the generally positive—though imperfect—spirit in which both communions have approached one another for centuries. (A clarifying note with respect to where The Josias comes down on this matter is available here.)

As Fr. Aidan Nichols, O.P. discusses in his seminal work, Rome and the Eastern Churches (2nd edition, Ignatius Press 2010) pgs. 104-08, “The Coptic mother church . . . has no historical animus towards the Latin church or towards the Roman see, with which, indeed, the church of Alexandria had historically been allied.” While Nichols highlights the fact that significant hostility exists between Coptic Catholics and Orthodox for a variety of cultural and political reasons, the Coptic Orthodox Church’s relations with the Melkite Greek Catholic Church have also been positive. In more recent decades, Catholics and Copts have worked strenuously toward overcoming the dogmatic issues which separated the two confessions following the Council of Chalcedon in 451. On May 10, 1973, Coptic Pope Shenouda III and Pope Paul VI signed a common declaration stating a shared Christology and thus putting an end to the dispute. It remains the hope of the Catholic Church that this declaration will lead to overcoming the ecclesiological disagreements which continue to keep the two bodies apart.

Another point which must be taken into account when dealing with the martyrdom question is the fact the many saints—martyrs or not—currently recognized, and sometimes specifically commemorated, in the Catholic East and/or West lived and died outside of the visible Church. For example, the 7th Century bishop and theologian Isaac of Nineveh, more commonly known as Isaac the Syrian, is recognized as a saint by all of the historic Apostolic churches despite having spent his earthly years in a Nestorian communion which was outside the known boundaries of the Catholic Church. (Whether or not St. Isaac ever held Nestorian views is debatable.)

To move the matter up to the last millennium, after the Great Schism which tore apart Catholics and Orthodox, the figure of St. Gregory Palamas must be examined as well. Although it’s possible to grant St. Isaac an ecclesiastical mulligan given the times in which he lived and the absence of social media to quickly, intelligently, and dispassionately resolve disagreements and misunderstandings, Palamas’s case is tougher to crack since he not only lived during a period of clear divide between Rome and Constantinople, but openly attacked Catholic theological positions. However, all—or almost all—of the reunified Eastern Catholic churches which follow the Byzantine Rite openly venerate Palamas and, along with the Orthodox, dedicate the Second Sunday of Lent to him.

Neither of these examples, nor the literally dozens (if not hundreds), of other examples of individuals who died outside of the visible reaches of the Catholic Church proves of course that the 21 Coptic Christians murdered, nay, martyred by ISIS should, at this point in time, receive official recognition as such from the Catholic Church. It would be imprudent, not to mention ecumenically insensitive, for Pope Francis to canonize these 21 holy souls who died confessing Jesus Christ with a blade at their throats. That privilege belongs to the Coptic Church alone which, by the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the New Coptic Martyrs, may soon restore full communion with the Catholic Church.