Can Non-Catholics Be Martyrs and Doctors of the Church? Pope Francis Thinks So

Can Non-Catholics Be Martyrs and Doctors of the Church? Pope Francis Thinks So
Can Non-Catholics Be Martyrs and Doctors of the Church? Pope Francis Thinks So
Photo: © Mazur/, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In February 2015, the world was stunned by a video released by ISIS, the Islamist terrorist movement, showing the beheading of twenty-one Christians who preferred death rather than submitting to Islam.

They were kidnapped Coptic Orthodox Christians and were slaughtered in Libya.

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Their attitude was heroic and worthy of admiration. The terrorists’ showed cruelty and barbarism. ISIS takes this Koran verse literally: “Kill the unbelievers wherever you find them” (2:91).

Are There Martyrs Outside the Church?

Undoubtedly, those non-Catholics who lost their lives rather than apostatize were heroes. However, can one call them martyrs in the technical sense, as defined by Catholic doctrine?

The answer requires careful analysis.

According to the Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology, martyrdom—from the Greek, martus, witness—is “the testimony one renders to Christ and His doctrine by voluntarily undergoing death or at least sufferings inflicted on him precisely out of hatred toward Christ and His religion.”1

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Another important premise to consider is that according to the famous axiom of Saint Cyprian of Carthage (210—258), a Church Father, “There is no salvation out[side] of the Church.”2 Church Magisterium has always taught this truth of faith. Here are a few examples:

* Pope Innocence III’s December 18, 1208 letter to the archbishop of Terraco regarding the profession of faith required from Waldensians wishing to return to the Church3;

* The dogmatic constitution Firmiter credimus approved by the Fourth Lateran Ecumenical Council (1215)4;

* Pope Boniface VIII’s November 18, 1302 bull Unam sanctam5;

* Pope Eugenius IV’s February 4, 1442 bull Cantata Domino, during the Ecumenical Council of Florence6;

* Pope Pius IX’s December 9, 1854 allocution Singulari quadam7;

* The same pope’s August 10, 1863 encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore8;

* Pope Pius XII’s June 29, 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi9;

* And his August 12, 1950 encyclical Humani generis.10

What About Invincible Ignorance?

So does that mean that all who are in the darkness of paganism or caught in the snares of heresy cannot be saved?

Saint Thomas Aquinas answers this distressing question with his usual clarity and depth by distinguishing vincible ignorance, which can be guilty, and invincible ignorance, which is always guiltless. The Angelic Doctor teaches:

“It is not imputed as a sin to man, if he fails to know what he is unable to know. Consequently, ignorance of such like things is called “invincible,” because it cannot be overcome by study. For this reason such like ignorance, not being voluntary, since it is not in our power to be rid of it, is not a sin: wherefore it is evident that no invincible ignorance is a sin. On the other hand, vincible ignorance is a sin, if it be about matters one is bound to know; but not, if it be about things one is not bound to know.”11

Now, one cannot be condemned without fault.

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Following Church tradition, Popes Pius IX and Pius XII recognized that a person in a situation of invincible ignorance regarding the Catholic Church but who, with the help of grace, follows the natural law, believes in a just God who rewards the good and punishes the bad, has faith in voto (by desire) and is somehow connected to the sole Church of Christ. Thus, that person can be saved through her.12

Being a Martyr Before God

A third consideration to have in mind is made by Benedict XIV (1740—1758). This pope speaks of people outside the visible Church who, through no fault of their own, because of invincible ignorance, nevertheless give their lives in witness to a Catholic truth. Can they be considered martyrs? In response, Pope Benedict XIV makes an important distinction: They may have been true martyrs, but only before God (coram Deo), not before the Church (coram Ecclesia). They would be martyrs coram Deo, provided they were habitually willing to believe whatever the Church proposed if they had the means to know it, and it is not their fault. They would not be martyrs coram Ecclesia because only God knows the internal dispositions of a person’s soul at the hour of death. Now the Church can only make a pronouncement about external actions that can be known by one’s senses. Thus, she cannot publicly consider martyrdom something that only God can know, namely, that a person in the state of invincible ignorance decided in his heart, even if only as a desire, to belong to the Catholic Church and who died united to her.13

Thus, if they fulfilled the conditions listed by Benedict XIV, the heroic Copts slaughtered by Islamic terrorists could be martyrs in God’s eyes. Nevertheless, the Church cannot proclaim them martyrs.

Pope Francis’s Martyrs of Two Churches

However, in calling individuals belonging to a schismatic Coptic Orthodox Church martyrs, Pope Francis departed from the Church’s traditional doctrine on martyrdom.

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Incidentally, he added this “ecumenism of blood” to his agenda at the beginning of his pontificate. He has been pushing it ahead long before the Coptic heroes’ quasi-canonization as martyrs.14

Indeed, in his meeting with the Coptic Orthodox dignitary Tawadros II, Pope Francis stated, “I have no words to express my gratitude for the precious gift of a relic of the Coptic martyrs killed in Libya on February 15, 2015. These martyrs were baptized not only in water and the Spirit, but also in blood, with a blood that is a seed of unity for all followers of Christ.”

He then announced he would include the names of these Copts in the Roman Martyrology, the liturgical book that contains the list of the saints and blessed honored by the Catholic Church: “I am pleased to announce today that, with Your Holiness’ [Tawadros II] consent, these twenty-one martyrs will be included in the Roman Martyrology as a sign of the spiritual communion uniting our two Churches.”15

This expression “our two Churches” is strange. It sounds suspiciously modernist and contrary to Catholic doctrine. It suggests that Our Lord founded a Church with several legitimate expressions.

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About the uniqueness of the Catholic Church it helps to recall the words of Pope Leo XIII in his 1896 encyclical Satis cognitum:

“It is so evident from the clear and frequent testimonies of Holy Writ that the true Church of Jesus Christ is one, that no Christian can dare to deny it…

“…Jesus Christ did not, in point of fact, institute a Church to embrace several communities similar in nature, but in themselves distinct, and lacking those bonds which render the Church unique and indivisible after that manner in which in the symbol of our faith we profess: ‘I believe in one Church.’”16

How Can One Be a Doctor of the Church When “Not in Communion With the Catholic Church”?

For Pope Francis, it is irrelevant to belong or not to the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Church—the sole Church of Christ—since all religions are equally good. According to the Abu Dhabi Declaration, which he signed in 2019 and has not repudiated since then, “[t]he pluralism and the diversity of religions…are willed by God in His wisdom.”17

Eager to implement his ecumenical agenda, the Argentine pope goes beyond the “ecumenism of blood.” In 2015, he proclaimed the theologian, mystic, and poet of the schismatic Armenian Apostolic Church, Gregory of Narek, a Doctor of the Church.18

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That proclamation raised controversy because it involved many problems of a historical and theological nature.

First, the Armenian Apostolic Church separated from the Catholic Church after the Council of Chalcedon (451) because of differences in Christological matters.19

According to historians, although he supported the dogma of the Council of Chalcedon, Gregory of Narek never abandoned the schismatic Armenian Church. He was never a member of the Catholic Church. (This is incomprehensible of a scholar dedicated to a life of study,20 making it hard to sustain that he had invincible ignorance concerning the Catholic Church.)

According to Mark Del Cogliano, professor of historical theology at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, “St. Gregory of Narek lived and died as a member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, making him the only Doctor who was not in communion with the Catholic Church during his lifetime.21

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In the same vein, Dr. R. Jared Staudt, instructor of the lay division at St. John Vianney Seminary (Denver), writes in an article titled “St. Gregory of Narek: Was the New Doctor of the Church a Catholic?”:

“One key question that is arising is: was St. Gregory a Catholic?

The short answer to this question seems to be no. He was a member of the Armenian Apostolic Church, which is a non-Chalcedonian Church…because of its rejection of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon.”22

After recounting “the [complicated] relationship of the Armenian Apostolic Church to the Catholic Church,” Dr. Staudt concludes: “St. Gregory is the first Doctor of the Church to have lived outside direct communion with the Bishop of Rome.23

Five years later, Dr. Staudt returned to the subject, analyzing the writings of the Armenian monk:

“Five years ago, I wrote an article asking whether St. Gregory of Narek (or Grigor Narekatsi, 950—1003), an Armenian monk, the then newly announced doctor of the Church, was a Catholic. The answer is clearly that he was not, making him the first non-Catholic doctor of the Catholic Church. The question now is whether or not he held to heretical Christological beliefs related to monophysitism, holding that Christ took his human nature into his divine nature, making them as one…My goal is not to reach any conclusion but to call for greater study and clarification on St. Gregory of Narek’s Christology.”

After examining several passages of Narek’s writings, the American scholar concludes that his Christology and Mariology are at least ambiguous.

Gregory clearly uses language that would be avoided by Catholics following Chalcedon…

…That [Narek’s ambiguity] would seem to constitute the opposite of the witness expected from a doctor of the Church, who should serve as a reference of clarity on the teaching of the Church.”24

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As is well known, three conditions are required for someone to be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church: “eminens doctrina, insignis vitae sanctitas, Ecclesiae declaratio” (eminent learning, a high degree of sanctity, and proclamation by the Church).25

Can it be said of someone about whom there is at least some doubt as to whether he even belonged to the Catholic Church that he satisfies these three requirements? Can a Doctor of the Church be someone whose writings “call for greater study and clarification”?

Once Again, Pope Francis Confuses the Faithful

The matter is grave and admits no doubt or ambiguity. In proclaiming someone a Doctor, the Church proposes to the special veneration of the faithful, a saint whose works have enriched Catholic doctrine.

Once again, Pope Francis sows confusion among the faithful because the Magisterium of the Church must be clear and bereft of even the slightest ambiguity.

Our Lord taught that the truth saves us: “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). Therefore, whatever is ambiguous is not part of the Magisterium of that Church commissioned by Jesus to teach the truth to all nations (see Matt. 27:19).

Ambiguity cannot come from Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).


1. “Martyrdom” in Dictionary of Dogmatic Theology by Pietro Parente, Antonio Piolanti, Salvatore Garofalo (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1951), 175, (Our emphasis.)
2. “Not even the baptism of a public confession and blood can profit a heretic to salvation, because there is no salvation out of the Church.” St. Cyprian of Carthage, “Epistle 72” (to Jubaianus), no. 21, in vol. 5 of Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, trans. Robert Ernest Wallis (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886). Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight,
3. See Denz.-Rahner, no. 420 in Henry Denzinger and Karl Rahner, The Sources of Catholic Dogma, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Fitzwilliam, N.H.: Loreto Publications, n.d.), 166.
4. See Denz.-Rahner, no. 430.
5. See Denz.-Rahner, no. 468.
6. See Denz.-Rahner, no. 714.
7. See Denz.-Rahner, no. 1647.
8. See Denz.-Rahner, no. 1677.
9. See Pius XII, encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi (Jun. 29, 1943),
10. See Pius XII, encyclical Humani generis (Aug. 12, 1950),
11. The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, I—II, q. 76, a. 2c, 2nd rev. ed. (1920), online edition Kevin Knight,
12. See Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, “Letter to the Archbishop of Boston” (Aug. 8, 1949, accessed May 28, 2023, This document of the Holy See explains the true sense of Catholic doctrine that there is no salvation outside the Church.
13. See R. Hedde, “Martyre,” in Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, 10:220—54, accessed May 28, 2023, Benedict XIV wrote his book, De servorum Dei beatificatione et de beatorum canonizatione when still a cardinal, but republished it as pope using his papal name.
14. See Christopher B. Warner, “Pope Francis and the ‘Ecumenism of Blood,’” Catholic World Report, Dec. 18, 2013,
15. Pope Francis, “Address of the Holy Father Pope Francis to His Holiness Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Historic Meeting of Their Predecessors, Pope Saint Paul VI and Pope Shenouda III” (May 11, 2023), (Our emphasis.)
16. Leo XIII, encyclical Satis cognitum, (On the Unity of the Church, June 29, 1896), no. 4,
17. “Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together,”, Feb. 4, 2019,; see also Luiz Sérgio Solimeo, “Theological and Canonical Implications of the Declaration Signed by Pope Francis in Abu Dhabi,”, Feb. 27, 2019,
18. See Pope Francis, “Message of His Holiness Pope Francis on the 100th Anniversary of ‘Metz Yeghern’ and Proclamation of St. Gregory of Narek as a Doctor of the Church” (Apr. 12, 2015),
19. The Coptic Orthodox Church remains schismatic despite the joint declaration by John Paul II and Karekim I Sarkissian. See “Common Declaration of His Holiness John Paul II and His Holiness Karekim I Sarkissian, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians” (Dec. 13, 1996),
20. See Mark Del Cogliano, “Theology Matters: A New Doctor of the Church,”, Oct. 8, 2015,; Wikipedia contributors, “Gregory of Narek,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed May 28, 2023,
21. Del Cogliano, “Theology Matters.” (Our emphasis.)
22. R. Jared Staudt, “St. Gregory of Narek: Was the New Doctor of the Church a Catholic? St. Gregory Is the First Doctor of the Church to Have Lived Outside Direct Communion With the Bishop of Rome,” The Catholic World Report, Feb. 26, 2015, (Our emphasis.)
23. Staudt, “St. Gregory of Narek.” (Our emphasis.)
24. Jared Staudt, “Was the Newest Doctor of the Church a Heretic? Evaluating St. Gregory of Narek’s Writings,” Building Catholic Culture, Oct. 12, 2020, (Our emphasis.)
25. John Chapman, “Doctors of the Church,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909), vol. 5, retrieved May 23, 2023 from New Advent: