It is unnecessary to retell the horrific story of the disgusting martyrdom of the 21 Coptic men in Libya last week, gloatingly displayed to the world in an online video of the sort that
ISIS Daesh* is notorious for producing. Though I have not watched it, those who have say that many of the martyrs had the name of Jesus on their lips as they died. Despite the hair-splitting of the SSPX, whether or not their murder was in revenge for the killing of a senior jihadist is irrelevant: they were murdered because they were Christian, and in hatred of Christ.
*(a name hated by the ISIS jihadists themselves and so most appropriate to give them)
The second objection of the SSPX to granting the title of martyr to the 21 Coptic brethren is that the Copts are heretics. This objection has more weight to it, but how relevant is it to this situation?
Firstly, are Copts actually heretics? Without going into a detailed history of the early Church and its theology, suffice it to say that the Coptic (ie Egyptian) Christians were in communion with the universal Church until the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD). After that Council they, with the other Oriental churches, were cast as monophysites (ie those who hold that Christ had only one nature, not two, and that this nature was either totally divine or a divine/human synthesis) and thus heretics. As so often happens, the argument was over vocabulary more than substance. The Copts formally reject monophysitism, and accept the perfect humanity and divinity of Christ in his one Person, though they centre the union of these two natures in one “nature”, rather than in one “person” as do Chalcedonian Christians like the Catholics and the Orthodox.
However, the issue is essentially a dead one. In 1988 the Catholic and Coptic Churches issued an Agreed Statement which affirmed the orthodox understanding of Christ’s identity:
We believe that our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Incarnate-Logos is perfect in His Divinity and perfect in His Humanity. He made His Humanity One with His Divinity without Mixture, nor Mingling, nor Confusion. His Divinity was not separated from His humanity even for a moment or twinkling of an eye.
At the same time, we anathematize the Doctrines of both Nestorius and Eutyches.
While we cannot ignore the mindset of separation that 1500 years will have naturally produced, this would seem to be weaker with regard to the Copts. Just as, in the wake of another agreed Christological statement with the Assyrian Church of the East, it is now possible for members of either Church to receive Communion in the other under certain conditions, it seems more than possible for the same arrangement to be made with our Coptic brethren.
Heresy is not an issue in reality; schism is, but even there can be found opportunity for progress.
Yet perhaps we can be bolder yet. Yesterday after Mass I was discussing the very issue of these 21 Coptic martyrs with Graham Hutton, Chairman of Aid to the Church in Need (a most worthy Catholic charity indeed). We discussed Pope Francis’ recent comments about an “ecumenism of blood” that unites us with our persecuted, non-Catholic brethren. This was an idea he had raised as far back as December 2013. He has not developed it theologically, which leaves the way for theologians (especially some young ones I know) to take this up and run with it.
Graham and I took this ecumenism of blood a little further in light of the ancient doctrine of Baptism by blood (see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1258-1259). In short, dying for Christ effects Baptism for those who die for him while unbaptized. So, we speculated, could it be possible to speak of an absolution by blood, by which dying for Christ would effect the absolution of any grave sins, even the sins of schism or even (formal) heresy? Pope Francis implies this when he said a few days ago that,
The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard… It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ.
This is not to minimize differences, nor to turn a blind eye to them as though they did not matter. However, in death divisions among Christians on earth cease to have much bearing. In dying for Christ one has become the perfect disciple, and enters communion with Christ’s Body in heaven.
The Coptic Church has just acclaimed the 21 victims as martyrs by inserting them into their liturgical calendar (15 February), the Coptic Synaxarium, an equivalent process to our own equivalent canonization. Pope Francis has informally identified them as martyrs. Now is the time for theologians to develop this possibility of an ecumenism by (or in) blood, and perhaps also an absolution by blood. This is real ecumenism that respects difference, and respects the essence of Christian discipleship. The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya are role models for all Christians, and surely we can honour them as such. Surely, we as well as Copts can and should call on their martyrs’ intercession before the throne of God in whose presence they now dwell, eternally.
Nothing unites like persecution; nothing builds the Church more than the blood of martyrs. Perhaps here the struggling western Church can find the renewal it so sorely needs.
Coptic martyrs of Libya – pray for us!
Taylor Marshall has kindly listed the names of the martyrs, which I copy here for reference:
The names of the 21 Coptic Martyrs are:
1. Milad Makeen Zaky
2. Abanub Ayad Atiya
3. Maged Solaiman Shehata
4. Yusuf Shukry Yunan
5. Kirollos Shokry Fawzy
6. Bishoy Astafanus Kamel
7. Somaily Astafanus Kamel
8. Malak Ibrahim Sinweet
9. Tawadros Yusuf Tawadros
10. Girgis Milad Sinweet
11. Mina Fayez Aziz
12. Hany Abdelmesih Salib
13. Bishoy Adel Khalaf
14. Samuel Alham Wilson
15. A worker from Awr village
16. Ezat Bishri Naseef
17. Loqa Nagaty
18. Gaber Munir Adly
19. Esam Badir Samir
20. Malak Farag Abram
21. Sameh Salah Faruq