Q: We keep reading or hearing today about the persecuted members of the Coptic Church. Could you explain what the phrase “Coptic Christians” means?
A: The word “Coptic” reflects the ancient language once used by Egyptians; “Copt,” I understand, is based upon the Arabic-like Gupt. According to Nicholas Liesel, in Eastern Catholic Liturgies (ed. Donald Attwater, Westminster, Newman Press; 1960), Coptic Christians were originally members of the Patriarchate of Alexandria (in Egypt), whose Liturgy is attributed to the Evangelist St. Mark.
Often, Latin Catholics forget that the Church was born in Jerusalem and the Middle East, and that before Peter was mysteriously drawn to Rome, he was the Bishop of Antioch, one of the major cities of Asia Minor and where Jesus’ disciples were first called “Christians.” (Acts 11:26)
Outside Jerusalem and Rome, church organization first developed in three additional “clusters” around three major cities: Alexandria, Antioch and Byzantium. Each of these sites was designated a Patriarchal See, or a Patriarchate. (Rome was obviously a Patriarchate from the beginning, since Peter became Rome’s first bishop. Among the titles of the Roman pontiff is “Patriarch of the West”; however, the Pope is the Universal Pastor, a title that transcends even that of “Patriarch of the West.”)
Down through the ages, various churches born in the Middle East sporadically experienced, from time to time, tensions relating to Roman primacy or jurisdiction. One scholar suggests that all the Eastern-born ritual Churches “separated” from Rome for one reason or another, but that most have healed their rifts, at least in part. (The theological term for such “separations” is the Greek-based descriptive, “schisms.”) As a general rule, a perennial motive has been a perceived reluctance to affirm papal primacy. By and large, however, few solid doctrinal issues have been seriously divisive.
Thus, today one can point to Coptic Christians who are practising Catholics.
Copts, specifically, are Egyptians, whose original language and liturgy date from ancient Alexandria. Many went into schism with the rise of a heresy known as Monophysitism. (“Monos” is Graecian for “one”; “physis” is Greek for “nature”; the erroneous theory was that Jesus had only one nature. On the contrary, Catholic Faith holds that the Person, who is Jesus, possesses a divine nature; however, as the Son of God, he assumed a second nature, a human nature.) Many Copts today hold to the traditional Catholic doctrine on this point; Pope Leo XIII in 1895 had to recognize two new dioceses to accommodate the Catholic Copts.
Incidentally, Catholic Churches that were born in the East used to be informally called “Eastern Catholic Churches” (e.g., Byzantine Catholics, Maronite Churches, Melkite Churches, the Ruthenian Churches, Greek Churches, Chaldean Churches). The new Latin Church Code of Canon Law (1983), however, prefers to describe these churches as “Ritual Churches sui juris.” The British translation of the new Code refers to these churches as “Autonomous Ritual Churches.” Sometimes, another descriptive is used; namely, Oriental Churches. One reason for the change in vocabulary is that these Ritual Churches, while born or cradled in the East, are now found everywhere in the world, and not only in the East. Here in Connecticut, for instance, there is a Ukrainian Catholic Church Diocese (Byzantine), located in Stamford.