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.



  1. There is a precedent in the example of Pope Paul VI who did not formally include the Anglican companions of St. Charles Lwanga in his canonization, but made sure to recognize them in his address: “Nor, indeed, do we wish to forget the others who, belonging to the Anglican confession, confronted death in the name of Christ.”

  2. Some questions: If schismatics are can attain salvation, then what does “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” mean? If the Copts, who have been rejecting ecumenical councils for more than fifteen hundred years, are not in schism, then who is? If that is the case, is it impossible then, to have schism without heresy – is every schismatic necessarily a heretic?

    1. The history of the Coptic Church is quite a bit more complicated than you set forth here, as is its rejection of Chalcedon which, as noted, has been resolved.

      I do wonder if you aren’t taking too strong a line on the dogma in question here. I by no means meant to imply that these men were not saved through the Church, that is, the Catholic Church. There’s no other way.

      1. According to your interpretation, the meaning of “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” is not “outside the Church there is no salvation” but rather “if there would be no Church then there would be no salvation” or “Christ instituted the Catholic Church as a mechanism for everybody to be saved” or somesuch. I suppose that the pithy “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” is catchier than whatever the Latin equivalents of the other two are, and that is the only reason it stuck throughout the centuries.

        Let us pretend for the moment that “extra ecclesiam nulla salus” means what it looks like it means, and it implies what it looks like it implies, which is, that one must be inside the Church in order to be saved, that only those in the Church Militant can make it to the Church Triumphant:

        Then the obvious implication here is that the clearly visible Catholic Church is not identical to the “Church” in the formulation “outside the Church there is no salvation.” Then – forget about the Orthodox and Anglo-Catholics – it is the Protestants who have been right all along: if the boundaries of the Church are fuzzy, for practical purposes the Church might as well be invisible.

        What marvelous news this would be to this typical diocesan trad! Not having to suffer through the Novus Ordo when the Traditional Mass is not available to me (which currently is most Sundays); not fretting over what the pope says and does – indeed, I could even embrace sedevacantism, if I could believe that the clearly visible Catholic Church is not identical with the Church of Christ; being able to also consider serious Protestants as potential spouses; and so much more.

        But the mark of a religiously conservative person – for lack of a better term – is the notion that it is unbelievably merciful for God to accept just one human into Heaven. Why should he accept so many? Indeed did the Lord not say “For many are called, but few are chosen”? And so for the security of our eternal souls, these matters must be interpreted as narrowly as possible.

        1. If you’re going to argue Feeneyism here, you are barking up the wrong tree. I don’t quarrel with people espousing positions which have already been dealt with by the Church. If you’re interested, write the CDF and let us know what they have to say about it.

          I would also encourage you to reconcile your position with the reality that for over four centuries the Catholic Church, through the Unia, has recognized Saints who lived and died outside of the visible borders of the Church. All of them, by the way, were part of Apostolic churches which, for a variety of reasons, had broken communion with the Catholic Church. I discussed two such saints here; there are many other examples that could be offered.

          I look forward to your reply.

          1. Well, I must not quite know what Feeneyism is, because the two persons I’ve talked to on this subject have said this is Feeneyism, but I don’t see it. A catechumen or someone who wants to become Catholic who dies for Christ before he is baptized, attains salvation – I thought that was the concern of Feeneyism. But a Copt or an Orthodox or a Protestant is not a catechumen or someone who wants to join the Church. In most cases they have already been baptized – so I don’t see how Feeneyism applies. Obviously I must look into this more, I’m sorry.

            I am aware of the non-Catholic Eastern saints on the Catholic calendar and am far, far readier to dismiss that as an unfortunate anomaly – after all, look at the Novus Ordo, unfortunate anomalies do exist – than to dismiss the idea of a visible Church with easily discernible boundaries. Who would want to be a Catholic nowadays if one may attain salvation through other means? I am not a masochist.

            1. After the Catholic Encyclopedia article on The Church a look, I regret what I said here specifically re: unfortunate anomaly. I am setting a dichotomy where it does not exist, as not everyone who is outside the visible Church goes to Hell (which I have never held, but what I’ve said here heavily implies), through what we call invincible ignorance etc. Nonetheless the Church is “a society manifest to the world, not a body whose members are bound by some secret tie” and one must belong to it.

              One is tempted to get upset, like the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, about this, because it appears to imply that recognition of the Church of Christ as the Catholic Church headed by the pope is actually a curse, and that ignorance itself saves. The only way this paradox can make sense is if belonging to the Catholic Church is still a surer way to Heaven than any other way of life. After all, the prodigal son could easily have perished before returning to his father’s house.

    2. One more point. The word “schism” may not be appropriate with respect to the Copts, at least not in the precise sense we apply that term to the Orthodox, Anglicans, and Old Catholics. The Eastern churches have a history, which continues to this day, of breaking communion over jurisdictional and canonical matters. Sometimes points of doctrine, due to a lack of clear understanding, are implicated as well. Given that both sides have worked through the doctrinal differences and are committed to working through the ecclesiological issues, I would say that the Copts are out of communion with Rome rather than remaining consciously and obstinately in schism. Maybe someone can challenge me on that point. I’m curious what others think.

  3. At Presanctified last night, at my small church at the end of the world, I and the rest of the choir sang the stichera for St. Archhippus, one of the Seventy apostles spoken of in Scripture, who died a martyr.

    Our choir director, one Gabriel Meyer, remarked that the hymns included the words, “You sanctified the world, Archhippus, with the divine streams of your blood.” He noted that it is fitting that the world is sanctified and purified by the blood of the martyrs, including those who died most recently. It is also fitting that the martyrs, by their deaths, do good in a way that confounds the intent of those who have martyred them.

  4. Could just as easily be written: “Given that both sides have worked through the doctrinal differences and are committed to working through the ecclesiological issues, I would say that the Copts are [simply] out of communion with [the Orthodox] rather than remaining consciously and obstinately in schism.”

    The Copts are friendly with most other churches (by necessity?) and seem to have camps internally that lean in different directions – some toward the Orthodox, others toward Rome, others toward different Protestant churches, others toward only the other Non-Chalcedonians, or satisfied that the Copts are the last true church. Reminds one of the various faces of Anglicanism at one time, which so confused the Orthodox for so long. Not sure the Copts are so much closer to Rome than they are to the Orthodox.

    On the upside, if we do all believe the same thing and are one Church, we are all already in communion in the one Body and Blood of Christ, which is also not so ‘visible’ to the eyes of the flesh.

    1. To the best of my knowledge he has never appeared on a Roman calendar, but he is most definitely revered as a Saint by numerous Eastern churches in communion with Rome, including the Melkites, Syro-Malabar, and Chaldean churches. I have read passing reference to him as a Saint by various Roman Catholic writers before, perhaps because he is honored as such by the Eastern wings of Catholicism.

  5. Well, I must be in pretty bad spiritual shape, because I even recognize Protestant martyrs. If you died for Christ, you’re a martyr. And a much better Christian than I am.

    1. I saw that. Since I don’t believe the SSPX is infallible, I’m no more bothered by it than I am by any wrongheaded or incorrect analysis of things ecclesial.

  6. “That privilege belongs to the Coptic Church alone”

    No matter what you think of non‑Catholic martyrdom, this seems a bizarre statement to make. We know well “that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” If you think these Copts are not subject to the Roman Pontiff, then they certainly cannot be saved and cannot be martyrs.

    1. But we also know that statement has to be read in continuity with the entire deposit of Faith. If one latches to that line and that line alone, it excludes the possibility of “Baptism of Desire,” for instance.

      My point here is that the Catholic Church has no business touching the Coptic Martyrs officially, at least not until such time as the Catholic and Coptic churches are reconciled with one another.

      1. I don’t think that straw‑man interpretation (what you call “latch[ing] to that line and that line alone”) is tenable either. The tradition is pretty clear that baptism of desire unites you to the Church and therefore to Peter. But what interpretation could you possibly have that would let you retain your conclusion? If Peter has no jurisdiction over you, then… you’re sunk, because there’s only the one barque. (If you meant that the Church should, in prudence, not exercise the jurisdiction, that would be different.) No matter what we think about how few or how many Copts are in formal heresy or formal schism, that fact shouldn’t be in question.

            1. It has no business officially recognizing them as martyrs for the reasons laid out in that excerpt. The unofficial acknowledgement of Pope Francis and other Catholics suffices. Also, if the Copts were to restore communion with the Catholic Church, I don’t see why Rome should interject itself in the canonization process at all. This whole business of “needing the Pope” to give surety to sainthood, which is of rather recent vintage when compared to the larger history of the Church (East or West), is needlessly messy and, in more recent times, has created more than a few complications.

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