A friend who is Coptic Orthodox has tried to convince me that their Church is the true Church and that we Catholics separated from the Church after the Council of Chalcedon. How do I answer her?
We can begin by recalling that Our Lord founded a Church with St Peter as its head (cf Mt 16:18-19; Jn 21:15-17).
This Church was one and it was united under the Pope, whose authority was recognised by all as it spread throughout the Roman Empire in the following centuries.
According to tradition, it was St Mark the evangelist who founded the Church in Egypt, in Alexandria, around the year 42AD.
By the end of the first century the Church had spread throughout Egypt. Because of the popularity of the ideas of the Alexandrian priest Arius, who denied that the Word who became flesh was truly God, the Council of Nicaea was held in 325 to resolve the matter.
The Council, following the teaching of St Alexander of Alexandria and especially St Athanasius, also of Alexandria, condemned Arius and declared that the Word was indeed God, “true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father”, as we say in the Nicene Creed on Sundays.
The Church in Egypt accepted the teaching of the Council.
The Church in Egypt also accepted the teachings of the next two Councils, the Council of Constantinople in 381, which declared the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and the Council of Ephesus in 431, which declared that Christ was one divine person with both a divine and a human nature and that Mary was truly the Mother of God.
The teachings of St Cyril of Alexandria were very influential in the declarations of the Council of Ephesus.
But then came the Council of Chalcedon. The teaching of St Cyril on the one person in Christ came to be understood by the Patriarch of Alexandria Dioscurus and the monk Eutyches to mean that in Christ there was only one nature, with the divine and human natures so united that they were physically one. The teaching was known as monophysitism.
It should be understood that St Cyril himself had died in 444 and thus was not there to explain his teaching. Eutyches was condemned at a synod in Constantinople in 448.
He appealed to Rome but Pope Leo I condemned him and explained the true doctrine in his Dogmatic Epistle.
Eventually, a council was convened which met in Chalcedon in 451 with some 600 bishops present.
The Council, following Pope Leo’s Dogmatic Epistle, condemned the error of monophysitism and declared that in Christ there were two natures, divine and human.
This time the Church in Egypt did not accept the findings of the Council.
They established their own patriarchate of Alexandria, calling their head the Pope, and no longer recognised the authority of the Bishop of Rome.
Thus was born what is now known as the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Since the Church in Egypt had accepted the teachings of the previous Councils, and Eutyches himself had recognised the authority of the Pope when he appealed to him, they should have accepted the teaching of Pope Leo and the Council of Chalcedon.
Thus, it is clear that it was they who separated from the one true Church of Christ, not vice versa.
At the Council of Florence in 1442 a Coptic Orthodox delegation signed a document accepting reunion with the Catholic Church, but there was little support for it in Egypt and it had no effect.
Then, in 1713, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria again agreed to union with Rome but this too was not to last. Finally, in 1824, the Pope established a Coptic Catholic Patriarchate of Alexandria for the small number of Coptic Catholics.
Their number has since grown considerably. We should acknowledge that relations between the Coptic Orthodox Popes and the Catholic Pope have been very cordial in recent times.
Less than a year after becoming Pope of the Church of Alexandria, in October 1972, Pope Shenouda III visited Pope Paul VI, the first Alexandrian Pope to do so since the schism of 451.
In May 1973, he drafted a declaration on the nature of Christ that was agreed upon by the Roman Catholic Church and the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox Churches, an important step towards re-establishing Christian unity.
And in May 2013, Pope Shenouda’s successor Pope Tawadros II had a cordial meeting with Pope Francis in Rome.
We should pray that the union of these important Churches may soon come about so that we can once again be one in Christ.