Egypt today is the site of a persecution of the Church on a scale unseen in Western Europe since the darkest days of the French Revolution; the Coptic Church is fighting for its life under vicious and escalating attacks from Muslims. A Muslim Brotherhood government is coming to power that promises to be more hostile. Yet in these dark days the Copts enjoy little support from Catholics who often only dimly understand the great debt we owe to the Church of Alexandria.
It was not ever thus. The Patriarch of Alexandria was once the third most-powerful prelate in the Church, after those of Rome and Constantinople; he was so designated by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The Lateran Council, moreover, was merely restating and ratifying – quite belatedly, for a variety of reasons – a canon of the fourth ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon, which was held over seven and a half centuries before it, in 451.
The Fathers of Chalcedon, for their part, were actually demoting the See of Alexandria from the second position that it had enjoyed before the Roman Emperors moved their capital to the new city of Constantinople, which accordingly became a great metropolis and a patriarchal see.
Constantinople, as a relative newcomer, initially drew upon the theological and liturgical traditions of two older patriarchal sees, Alexandria and Antioch. In theological investigation, Alexandria was unrivaled. The Church of Alexandria was the home of the Church’s first great theological school, where students could learn from pioneering teachers of Christian theology such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. No other Christian center, not even Rome, rivaled Alexandria’s theological sophistication and depth, although certainly Alexandrine Fathers – most notably Origen himself – did not always maintain their speculations within the confines of Christian orthodoxy. At the same time, Alexandria was the cradle of Christian monasticism – although in that case, it was more a matter of saints such as Anthony the Great leaving the great city than learning anything in it.
From Alexandria came both the arch-heresiarch Arius, who denied that Christ and His Father were one in any meaningful sense, and his nemesis St. Athanasius (298-373), whose legacy includes the doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ – as well as many of the doctrinal formulations contained in the Nicene Creed. Alexandria also was the home of another Father and Doctor of the Church, St. Cyril, who presided over the third ecumenical council, held in Ephesus in 431. In order to safeguard the divinity of Christ and his unity as a single person who was both God and man, the Fathers of Ephesus, led by Cyril, declared Mary the Mother of Jesus to be Theotokos, bearer of God – not just the bearer of Christ, as she had been styled by Cyril’s opponent, Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who was excommunicated and deposed.
After that, as was so often the case during the Christological controversies of the early Church, things get murky. An ecumenical council had declared Cyril’s Christology affirming the unity of Christ the faith of the Church, but Nestorianism refused to die, and Eutyches, a monk of Constantinople, became the center of a new controversy when Flavian, the Patriarch of Constantinople, excommunicated him for refusing to confess two natures in Christ, divine and human.
Eutyches – and many others – saw this as a Nestorian separation of the Christ whose unity of person had just been affirmed at the third ecumenical council. Finally, in 449 the Emperor Theodosius II convened a new ecumenical council, to be held at Ephesus as well. Theodosius initially asked the Pope, St. Leo the Great, to preside over the council, but Leo declined, as Italy was at that time being overrun by Attila the Hun and travel would have been hazardous. Then, recognizing the influence of Alexandria as a See and the revered Athanasius and more contemporary Cyril (who had died in 444) as the principal architects of the Church’s Christology, Theodosius appointed Cyril’s successor and protégé, Dioscorus, to preside over the council.
This new council of Ephesus declared that Christ had but one nature. Flavian was deposed and set upon by a mob; he died soon thereafter. The papal legates refused to accept the council’s decrees and fled in fear for their lives. Pope Leo the Great also refused to accept the council, dubbing it a latrocinium – a synod of robbers – and appealed to the Emperor to have it overturned. Leo appealed in vain, but Divine Providence then intervened; Theodosius was thrown from his horse and died, and the new emperor, Marcian, agreed with Leo, annulled the second council of Ephesus, and called a new council at Chalcedon, across the Bosporus from Constantinople, in 451.
At Chalcedon, events unfolded in exactly the opposite direction as at the latrocinium. Leo’s definition of Christ as one Divine Person in two natures, divine and human, was accepted by the council Fathers, who cried, “Peter has spoken through Leo!” Dioscorus was condemned and excommunicated – taking much of his See and Eastern Christendom with him.
It remains a point of controversy to this day, however, as to whether he was excommunicated for heresy or for his high-handed mismanagement of his See. Nonetheless, he and his followers were labeled Monophysites – those who held that Christ had no human nature or that His human nature was absorbed entirely into His divinity such that it did not perdure. Those to whom this label was applied, however, always rejected it.
Dioscorus considered himself to be carrying on Cyril’s teachings. And maybe he was. Both St. Cyril and St. Athanasius had confessed “one nature” in Christ, which was just what had now been condemned at Chalcedon. But it is by no means clear that Dioscorus, any more than Athanasius or Cyril, meant this in a heretical way (that Christ had no human nature at all) rather than in an orthodox way (that His divine and human natures were fully united and inseparable). Ironically, Dioscorus even affirmed that “we do not speak of confusion, neither of division, nor of change” in Christ’s nature – language echoed in the confession of faith of the council that deposed him, Chalcedon: “We confess that one and the same Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation.” And the Church of Alexandria has through the ages celebrated the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil of Caesarea, which affirms that the Lord’s divine and human natures “did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye” – a statement that assumes that both exist.
And so the Church of Alexandria (aka the Church of Egypt, or “Coptic” Church, “Coptic” being the Coptic word for “Egyptian”) and much of the Christian East, virtually half of Christendom at that time, went their own way, in schism with both Rome and Constantinople (both of which accepted Chalcedon). Dioscorus was declared a saint; his successor, Timothy, was known as The Cat, for he knew how to land on his feet in the treacherous theological disputes of the day.
Yet the Chalcedonians could not and would not forget them. A succession of Eastern Roman Emperors made numerous attempts to heal this schism, hoping to restore the unity of the Empire and make it easier for it to incorporate and hold areas of Asia Minor and points East that were populated by Christians who rejected Chalcedonian Christology. The Emperor Heraclius (573-641) was so anxious to heal the schism that he invented a new heresy, Monothelism, which tried to bridge the gap between Chalcedonian orthodoxy and the “Monophysites” by positing only one will in Christ, but an otherwise intact human nature.
As is always the case with theology cooked up in committees rather than conceived in the hearts and souls of believing people, this attempted compromise pleased no one, and the schism went on. It is tragic that the Church was rent by a schism that appears largely to have been a matter of terminology, of words and concepts understood in varying ways by the contending parties. For political reasons and because of the intransigence that was characteristic of the age, those parties were not interested in forming commissions for dialogue in order to arrive at a mutual understanding.
Finally, when the Arab conquest subjugated and substantially reduced the Church of Alexandria, the entire controversy, and the once-vibrant See that had formulated so much of the Church’s understanding of Christ, faded from Western memory. The Copts endured centuries of Muslim rule, their numbers steadily diminished under the pressure of the institutionalized discrimination that Islamic law mandates for Christians, and from which one can be freed simply by converting to Islam. A fraction of the Coptic Church returned to communion with Rome in 1741, and is known today as the Coptic Catholic Church, but most Egyptian Christians (who today still number as much as ten percent of Egypt’s population) belong to the non-Chalcedonian Coptic Orthodox Church headed by Pope Shenouda III since 1971.
The title “Pope” doesn’t mean that Shenouda is an antipope or a pretender to the See of Peter in Rome. The Patriarch of Alexandria, in fact, began using the title – which was originally derived from the Greek and Coptic words for “Father” and in itself denotes no claim to primacy over the whole Church – several centuries before the Bishop of Rome did. (That’s why Eastern Catholic Churches generally commemorate the “Pope of Rome” during their Liturgical celebrations: they’re distinguishing him from the Pope of Alexandria, a much more vivid personage in their world than in the Latin West, where the Roman Pontiff is the only Pope in sight.)
Not long after he became the Coptic Pope, in 1973, Shenouda and the Pope of Rome, Paul VI, made a momentous declaration. They affirmed a common faith in Jesus Christ, who “is perfect God with respect to His Divinity, perfect man with respect to His humanity. In Him His divinity is united with His humanity in a real, perfect union without mingling, without commixtion, without confusion, without alteration, without division, without separation.” They quoted the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil of Caesarea: “His divinity did not separate from His humanity for an instant, not for the twinkling of an eye. He who is God eternal and invisible became visible in the flesh, and took upon Himself the form of a servant. In Him are preserved all the properties of the divinity and all the properties of the humanity, together in a real, perfect, indivisible and inseparable union.”
This did not heal the schism that had by then continued for a millennium and a half. But to end 1,500 years of misunderstanding and mutual recrimination was accomplishment enough. The agreement reminded many Catholics of the existence and illustrious legacy of their brethren of the Church of Alexandria. Today it looks as if such a reminder was much needed, as the Coptic Church would soon be walking the way of the cross yet again – and Coptic Christians need and deserve all the spiritual and material support their Western brethren can possibly provide.
The bleakness of the situation for Christians in Egypt today, with the Muslim Brotherhood poised to take power, cannot be overstated. Might elegies be in order for a See and Church that was once among the most influential and powerful in all of Christendom? The Lord may yet see fit to save the Church that has produced so many martyrs for fourteen centuries now, and certainly Coptic heroism has not dimmed. But however events may unfold, the Coptic Church deserves our prayers and help – not only in simple Christian solidarity but in gratitude for the great gifts of grace God has given us through the noble Church of Alexandria, the Third See of the ancient and undivided Church.