The Twenty-One Slain Copts: Martyrs?

The savage infidels who call themselves ISIL have added to their brutal crimes recently by simultaneously beheading twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians on a beach in Libya. This grievous crime against defenseless civilians should rouse our just indignation. Further, such a persecution of the baptized by those who hate the Cross (and have vowed to conquer Rome) should elicit a chivalric response in Catholic hearts.

With all our will, we must execrate such a heinous deed.

The twenty-one were members of the so-called Coptic Orthodox Church. This body is not an Egyptian national church affiliated with those Greeks, Russians, and other “mainstream” Orthodox communions who definitively broke from Rome in 1054 (to reenter communion briefly at the union councils of Lyons II and Florence). No, the Copts, like their fellow Alexandrines, the Ethiopian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Christians, are from a much earlier schism, viz., of those who rejected the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Underlying their schism were various issues, including the Monophysite heresy (a denial of Our Lord’s Sacred Humanity).

Because of their rejection of the Council of Chalcedon, the Copts, along with the Armenians and Ethiopians, are known collectively as “non-chalcedonian” Christians. They are also, confusingly enough, called “Oriental Orthodox” — as distinguished from “Eastern Orthodox.” (“Oriental” and “Eastern” meaning the same thing, one would think this a distinction without a difference, but it’s not. Linguistic conventions do not always make sense.)

To simplify things, the “Eastern Orthodox” (Greeks, Russians, etc.), accept seven ecumenical councils, while the “Oriental Orthodox” — including the Copts — accept only three.

A piece on the web site of the American District of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) asks the question, “Can the 21 Copts recently killed by ISIS militants be classified as martyrs?” — for they were hailed as such by the Holy Father, and by other Catholic bishops. The author of the Society’s short article replies in the negative, stating that the conditions for martyrdom are “not evident” for two reasons:

  1. The ISIS spokesman revealed that this killing was in retaliation for that of Osama Bin Laden a while ago. It may not be the only reason but it certainly sheds some doubt as to whether the hatred of the Faith was also certainly included to have these 21 victims declared ‘martyrs’ ipso facto.
  2. More pregnant is the question of martyrdom for the Faith. There is only one such ‘Christian Faith’ and that is the Catholic Faith. On the other hand, the Orthodox or the Protestants are properly speaking heretics, and do not hold the Faith at all since they contradict it and, instead of believing the whole Revelation because God has said it, they pick and choose. The question which we raise is whether a non-Catholic can die in defense of the Catholic Faith which he does not embrace? The question seems answer[ed] in the asking. Hence, it is not only imprudent but dangerous to the true Faith to publicly give to manifest heretics the tag of martyrs.

While the first reason may or may not rule out martyrdom in this particular case (a persecutor can certainly have “mixed motives” for martyring a Christian, and who knows really what happened here?), I must agree with the second, “more pregnant,” reason given by the SSPX author.

Then he asks a different question: whether these separated Christian brethren can be saved.

In these days of rampant indifferentism, some might be surprised to see such a question raised at all. Regular readers of this site, however, would have no cause of wonderment, for they know that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.

Coincidently, in this context, the most explicit and detailed definition of that doctrine comes from the Council of Florence’s Cantate Domino. This document, which was one of the instruments that secured a short-lived union with dissident Eastern Christians at Florence, was written specifically for the Syrian Jacobites. This group, which still exists in Syria and especially India, also rejected the Council of Chalcedon. In other words, they are part of the same schism as the Copts.

Here is that Florentine definition, written (we recall), specifically for the reunion of schismatics who were, like the Copts, non-chalcedonian:

It [the sacrosanct Roman Church] firmly believes, professes, and proclaims that those not living within the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics cannot become participants in eternal life, but will depart “into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels” [Matt. 25:41], unless before the end of life the same have been added to the flock; and that the unity of the ecclesiastical body is so strong that only to those remaining in it are the sacraments of the Church of benefit for salvation, and do fastings, almsgiving, and other functions of piety and exercises of Christian service produce eternal reward, and that no one, whatever almsgiving he has practiced, even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has remained in the bosom and unity of the Catholic Church.

It is very clear from this infallible dogmatic definition that one who is separated from the Catholic Church by heresy or schism at the time of his death cannot be saved, “even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ.” There do not exist heretical or schismatic martyr-saints.

There is our cause for concern. There is the reason for broaching the question, “If not martyrs, could they yet be saved?”

One may not hope against the virtue of Faith. I may not hope, for instance, that I myself will be saved if I die in mortal sin. Neither may I hope that one who dies guilty of heresy or schism can be saved. I may hope that one who is putatively in a non-Catholic sect may be only materially heretical or schismatic. In that case, he is a Catholic. In addition, I may also hope for a deathbed conversion.

Therefore, I hope that these twenty-one men were saved — as Catholics.

Either way, it is not ours to judge in this matter. But since this “who am I to judge?” idea is more often than not a veneer over heresy or heteropraxy, let me be specific: It is not ours to say definitively that these twenty-one Copts were saved or damned. It is ours to say what the requisites for salvation are. It is ours to pray and work for the conversion and salvation of all non-Catholics, especially our neighbors.

In the United States, there are numerous non-chalcedonian Christians with Catholic neighbors. Have you talked to any of them?