Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sui Juris Churches VI: The Coptic Catholic Church

(on sui juris churches in general)

Liturgical Family: Alexandrian

Primary Liturgical Languages: Coptic and Arabic

Juridical Status: Patriarchal

Approximate Population: 160,000, although good numbers are very difficult to find.

Brief History: After the Council of Chalcedon in 451, an immense controversy broke out, giving rise to one of the major schisms of Christian history. The Definition of Chalcedon was in certain parts of the world deemed entirely inconsistent with the Council of Ephesus and with the views of the great doctor of the Church associated with the Council of Ephesus, St. Cyril of Alexandria. The See of Alexandria itself was especially inclined to think there was a contradiction, and to regard the Council of Chalcedon as being in reality a bit of political maneuvering by the See of Constantinople. Alexandria and Constantinople were longstanding rivals for the second see in Christendom; Alexandria had held that honorary place for a very long time, but the connection of Constantinople with the Emperor and the slow weakening of the alliance between Rome and Alexandria, once the bulwark of orthodoxy, had contributed to the waxing of the influence of Constantinople. Chalcedon had sealed this with Canon 28, which gave Constantinople, as New Rome, second place only to Old Rome itself; neither Rome nor Alexandria accepted this notion, seeing Constantinople as a dangerous interloper trying to leverage its ties to political power. This perception was only confirmed to the Alexandrians by Chalcedon's deposition of Patriarch Dioscurus and the repeated interventions of the Emperor to place Chalcedonian bishops on the throne. Thus was the Coptic Orthodox Church split from the Catholic Orthodoxy of the bulk of the Empire; Oriental Orthodoxy was born.

Beginning in the fifteenth century with the Council of Florence, the West began actively trying to further union with the Coptic Orthodox Church. Most of this did not get anywhere, despite a Coptic Orthodox delegation signing an act of union with Rome in 1442 and a near success again in 1713, but it did lead to a greater interaction between Copt and Western missionaries, and a slow increase of Catholics in Egypt. In 1781, Benedict XIV appointed a Vicar Apostolic for this small community of Catholics. After the Ottoman Turks reduced the restrictions on Coptic Catholics in 1829, the community thrived, to such an extent that Leo XII raised the church to patriarchal status in 1824. This didn't really go anywhere, and in 1895, Leo XIII had to restore its patriarchal status. The Patriarch appointed was Cyril Makarios, who turned out to be both a very effective and controversial figure. The controversies over his reforms turned out to be so great that he eventually resigned in 1908. For forty years the See remained technically vacant, with no Patriarch (although there was an administrator appointed by Rome). In 1947, however, a new Patriarch was chosen, and there has been a patriarch ever since.

As with the their Coptic Orthodox counterparts, Coptic Catholics have repeatedly been subject to outbursts of persecutions, which has led to a slow drainage of Coptic Catholicism out of Egypt into other parts of the world. This has been slower than one might think, however; the Copts in general have weathered very severe circumstances through their history, and tend to esteem their Egyptian culture quite highly. Only time will tell how the Coptic Catholic Church will endure the violence it has increasingly faced in the past decades.

Notable Monuments: Cathedral of Our Lady of Egypt in Cairo.

Notable Saints: Athanasius of Alexandria (May 2); Cyril of Alexandria (June 27); Maurice and the Theban Legion (September 22); Menas (November 11). I know of no Coptic Catholic saints since the nineteenth century, however; and I can find no information on the Coptic Catholic calendar of saints itself.

Extent of Official Jurisdiction: Seven eparchies in Egypt.

Online Sources and Resources:



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