Comment

Can Catholics recognise the 21 murdered Coptic Christians as martyrs?

An icon of the 21 Coptic martyrs of Libya by artist Tony Rezk

The murder of the 21 Coptic Christians in Libya by ISIS has raised the issue for Catholics as to whether we can acknowledge them as martyrs as the Copts have done. The SSPX and the Josias blog, for instance, contend that the Copts are heretics and schismatics. The Josias asks if a Copt being murdered by a militant anti-Christian “for his Christian profession, would… suddenly… [be] a good Christian? Would it gain him entry into heaven and blot out his sins?”

First, are Copts actually heretics? After the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the Copts, with other Oriental churches, were cast out as monophysite heretics. As so often happens, the argument was more about vocabulary than substance. The Copts formally rejected monophysitism, but they explained their orthodox view of the two natures of Christ with a vocabulary different to Chalcedon’s.

However, the issue is dead. In 1988 the Catholic and Coptic Churches issued an Agreed Statement which affirmed the orthodox understanding of Christ. After another agreed Christological statement, in 1994 with the Assyrian Church of the East, it became possible for members of either Church to receive Communion in the other under certain conditions. Could not the same arrangement could be made with the Copts?

Yet perhaps we can be bolder yet. When I discussed these martyrs with Graham Hutton, chairman of Aid to the Church in Need, we addressed Pope Francis’s recent reference to an “ecumenism of blood” that unites Christians. He has not developed it theologically, which leaves the way for theologians to take this up and run with it.

So we took this ecumenism of blood a little further in light of the ancient doctrine of baptism by blood, which holds that the unbaptised who die for Christ are baptised by their death. So could it be possible to speak of an absolution by blood, by which a Christian’s dying for Christ would absolve any grave sins, even those of schism or even heresy? Pope Francis implies this when he said a few days ago that…

[T]he 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 minimise differences, nor to turn a blind eye to them. However, in dying for Christ do such divisions among Christians retain real relevance? In dying for Christ one has become the perfect disciple, and enters a real communion with Christ’s Body in heaven.

The Coptic Church has acclaimed the 21 victims as martyrs by inserting them into their liturgical calendar (February 15), much like our own equivalent canonisation. Pope Francis has informally though publicly called them martyrs. Theologians need urgently to investigate the possibility of an ecumenism by (or in) blood, as well as an absolution by blood. This seems authentic ecumenism, acknowledging difference, yet also respecting the highest form of Christian discipleship.

The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya are role models for all Christians, and a Catholic heart wants to honour them as such. Could we not join the Copts in calling on their martyrs’ intercession before God in whose presence, surely, they now dwell, eternally?

Nothing builds the Church like the blood of martyrs. The 21 Coptic Martyrs of Libya may offer a path to the renewal that the struggling Western Church so sorely needs.