During a visit to Egypt, Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros II met to sign a Declaration and memorialize 29 Copts who were killed by ISIS bombers last December.
On April 28, Pope Francis met with the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II in Egypt. Along with several other non-Catholic Christian leaders, including the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, Pope Francis participated in an ecumenical prayer service at St. Peter and Paul’s church in Cairo, where 29 people were killed and 31 others wounded by an Islamic State-planted bomb during Sunday liturgy on December 11, 2016. The meeting also included the signing of a Joint Declaration by Francis and Tawadros which, among other things, included a sincere commitment to not re-baptize those who convert from one communion to the other.
More Than a Millennium of Separation
The Coptic Orthodox Church is an Oriental Orthodox Church which, like other Oriental Orthodox churches such as those of Armenia and Ethiopia, do not accept the 451 Council of Chalcedon. (The Oriental Orthodox are distinct from the Eastern Orthodox churches such as Constantinople and Moscow which, like the Catholic Church, accept Chalcedon and the subsequent three ecumenical councils.) A myriad of complex factors, including linguistic, philosophical, and political differences contributed to the rejection of Chalcedon. The emergence of Islam in the following centuries and the collapse of political autonomy for many of the region’s Christian groups contributed to long periods of estrangement between Catholics and Oriental Orthodox.
Even so, numerous efforts have been made to restore unity between Rome and the Coptic Orthodox. For instance, at the Council of Florence in 1439, reunion with the Coptic Orthodox was briefly restored, though it failed to take root in Egypt. Later, in the 1600s, Latin Catholic missionaries started deepening ties with the Copts, eventually leading to the formation of the Coptic Catholic Church in the mid-18th century under Pope Benedict XIV. Also during this period, amicable ties were established between the Coptic Orthodox and the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, due in no small part to the mutual threat both faced from Islam and the difficulties the Melkite clergy faced in ministering to their flocks in Egypt.
Despite advancements in sorting through theological differences, such as the 1988 joint Catholic/Coptic Orthodox Christological statement intended to overcome disagreements concerning Chalcedon, the Coptic Orthodox continue to reject the Catholic understanding of the Petrine office. As such, it is impossible to say that Catholics and Coptic Orthodox profess the same faith despite the fact the latter maintain a valid hierarchy and Eucharist.
The Question of Coptic Martyrs
The absence of communion between Catholics and Coptic Orthodox has led some to question Pope Francis’s willingness to speak of Coptic Orthodox who have died at the hands of Muslims “martyrs” in the precise sense. In his address to Tawadros, Pope Francis stated the following:
How many martyrs in this land, from the first centuries of Christianity, have lived their faith heroically to the end, shedding their blood rather than denying the Lord and yielding to the enticements of evil, or merely to the temptation of repaying evil with evil!”
While there can be little doubt that the Coptic Orthodox are targeted by Muslims for the very points of doctrine that they share in common with Catholics, including the Divinity of Jesus Christ, the Holy Trinity, and the veneration of Our Lady and the Saints, that sorrowful situation must not obscure the reality of schism or the fact that the separated Copts hold to a heterodox ecclesiology.
To speak of Coptic Orthodox who die under Islam as “martyrs” is understandable in the common and very imprecise use of the word in everyday language, but it should never be taken to mean that these suffering souls are in any way being officially glorified by the Catholic Church. For one to properly and precisely be a martyr, they must be a witness for the Catholic Faith, which the Coptic Orthodox do not. (The exception here are the children of Coptic Orthodox Christians who, by virtue of being baptized into the one Church, are members of the Catholic Church until reaching the age where they may consciously reject her.)
Finally, this common use of the term “martyrs” should not be used to justify the ideology of ecumenists who see no need to bring the Coptic Orthodox back into the Catholic fold. Unfortunately, Pope Francis’s words to the Coptic Pope concerning “[t]he deepening progress of [their] ecumenical journey [being] also sustained…by a genuine ecumenism of blood” obviates the need for the Coptic Orthodox to enter into communion with Rome in order to end the schism and once again be part of the “one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” professed in the Nicene Creed.
What Comes Next?
While it is too early to predict the future trajectory of Catholic/Coptic Orthodox relations, the Joint Declaration signed by Francis and Tawadros does including some alarming statements. For instance, the Declaration speaks of Egyptians as “a people blessed by God” while including Islam as one of those blessings (paragraph 1). And, imbibing in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council document Dignitatis Humanae, declares:
[r]eligious freedom, including freedom of conscience, rooted in the dignity of the person, is the cornerstone of all other freedoms. It is a sacred and inalienable right (paragraph 8).
No mention is made of the rights of Christ the King over society, nor of the reality that this modern, liberal conception of rights has done nothing to stop Muslims from violently persecuting Egyptian Christians to this very day.
Source: sspx.org - 05/09/17