Ecumenism of Blood

Hugh Knapman OSB

Hugh Knapman OSB

Ecumenism of Blood: Heavenly Hope of Earthly Communion. By Hugh Somerville Knapman, OSB.  New York: Paulist Press, 2018.  128p.


The question raised by this book is rather simple: can the Catholic Church give some formal recognition of the canonization by the Coptic Church of martyrdom, at the hands of Daesh/ISIS soldiers? The question arises because several recent popes have used terms that informally recognize a reconciliation between these Christians and the Catholic church. Pope Francis in particular has used the term “ecumenism of blood”. Some critics have balked at the expression and feel that it is wrongly used of people who belong to churches which are considered to be schismatic or heretical. They argue that there is a tradition of not recognizing martyrs that are not Catholic, especially in a formal way; otherwise it is dangerous and confusing.

The author has patiently put together a short and readable version of his MPhil dissertation on the subject which carefully considers, including the ecumenical developments in Vatican II and post-conciliar theology and papal statements, that would indicate a doctrinal development and would allow both an informal and a formal recognition of martyrdom of Coptic Christians by the Coptic Church of Egypt and Libya.

The strongest support for this view comes from statements and actions taken by popes of the last century; the ecumenical developments in Vatican II and post-conciliar theology, the use of analogia fidei and doctrinal development. The author is very careful to point out that he is not advocating canonization by the Catholic Church of people killed out of hatred for the Christian faith by persecutors. He is seeking to describe theologically why the Catholic Church might give formal recognition of the reconciliation “by blood” of Christians not in full communion with Rome. The closest argument in this direction is the teaching of baptism of blood which has a long life in the Christian tradition, and gives the possibility of using the teaching of Vatican II in matters ecumenical.

Hugh Knapman OSB, received his STB from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome in 2008. For his Master’s in Philosophy at the University of Bristol he presented a dissertation on the Ecumenism of Blood. (His earlier studies in theology were at Blackfriars Hall Oxford and Sydney College of Divinity in Australia.) He is well prepared to handle the subject of his book

Knapman edited his dissertation for publication in the Paulist Press volume for a wider readership. While there are many obstacles to “canonization” by the Vatican of persons of other Christian churches, (the process of Eastern churches is simply to place them in the list of saints in the martyrology, rather than a process like Rome’s.) There are other problems involved in such a process, e.g. there is a distinction between people who are killed for political reasons and those who belong to a church that is considered to be schismatic or heretical. The main points of the thesis Knapman proposes is that some formal recognition of the martyrs belonging to other Christian churches is not opposed to the long tradition of canonization. Indeed, there is a development, that makes a good case for this recognition.

Pope Benedict XVI (Prospero Lambertini)

What is new in Knapman’s presentation is the idea that beginning with the tradition of baptism of blood which was recognized in the early Church, and the work of Pope Benedict XIV on invincible heretics, there is something in the Christian tradition that is a foundation for a development of doctrine.

The theological position of Benedict XIV (Prospero Lambertini) about the invincible heretic (l’heritique invincibiliter – “in good faith” — is important. He explains that people in other Christian traditions – Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed/Calvinist, etc. – should not be considered to be schismatic or heretical; rather, they are not aware of their status. They cannot be blamed for following their conscience, and have a right to religious freedom.

Pope Francis’ Contribution

Pope Francis spoke to ecumenists gathered at the Basilica of St Paul Outside the Walls in Rome on January 26, 2015. He stated that ecumenism opens the minds and hearts of Christians to recognize the unity they share as Christians when they view together the faith and courage that Christians have in the midst of persecution. Francis points out that the persecutors do not ask to what church people belong. They are killed simply because they are Christian (cf. Catholic Herald, January 26, 2015.) He also spoke on the same subject in Evangelii Gaudium. Pope Paul VI made special mention of the Anglican Christians that were martyred along with Catholic Christians In Uganda during his pontificate.

One could safely follow the guidelines and values stressed by Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, that there is an ecumenical spirit bringing Christians together in recognizing whether informally or formally that the “communion of saints” is at work and the ecumenical spirit is shown. Benedict XVI also noted that Christians who are persecuted because of their faith, give witness to that faith in a dramatic way. While this is sound theology and an ecumenical view, it has a firm base in what Knapman traces as the trajectory from apostolic times to the present.