The SSPX claim the Novus Ordo is a Protestant rite. Can they be serious?

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta holds a monstrance containing the Eucharist (Photo: CNS)

The current Catholic Herald debate on the collapse of the doctrinal discussions between the Vatican and the SSPX is getting a substantial response, and has been noticed elsewhere in the blogosphere. The whole debate, according to one blog, The Sensible Bond, was predictable: “On the one side, high-minded papal loyalists cannot say enough about how disobedient the SSPX is, or how proud. On the other side, SSPX tub thumpers jeer about the hierarchy’s tendency to wink at all rebellions apart from the SSPX’s, and the busted flush of Benedict’s papacy which has seen him gravitate from liturgical traditionalist to Assisi tribute act in a mere four years”.

Well, I can’t say I’m neutral between the two points of view, definitely tending towards being a “papal loyalist” (despite some discomfort over Assisi, I think it’s just about defensible), though how high-minded you need to be to hold such views I’m not sure: it seems to me it’s a perfectly normal for a mainstream Catholic to be loyal to the pope.
The real question is whether there was ever any realistic prospect that there might be any kind of rapprochement. Rome’s view is that the SSPX can be as critical as it likes about the distortions of Vatican II – what Pope Benedict calls “the hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture” – but in the end it has to accept the essential Catholicity of the Council itself. This seems to me entirely reasonable. SSPX actually demands that Rome should repudiate the Council and accept that the Mass of Paul VI is invalid, even Protestant.
This is grotesquely unreasonable. It is inconceivable that the Vatican would simply turn against an ecumenical council of all the world’s bishops. SSPX must have known this: so it has been playing an elaborate game whose outcome was probably clearly foreseen by Bishop Fellay. The Pope, on the contrary, clearly had hopes that the schism might be overcome. Well, he has done everything he could to explore every avenue towards reconcilation. Now it is over.

The issues involved, however, will be with us for some time, and still have to be faced, since the casual acceptance of some supposedly “traditionalist” views has done considerable damage. One of these was summed up by one participant in the ongoing Herald debate: his view is essentially that the Novus Ordo is an invalid rite:

“The Novus Ordo does not signify the Catholic theology of the holy sacrifice of the Mass. It is ambiguous – deliberately so – and tends toward giving a Protestant understanding of the Lord’s Supper, which gradually will replace the Catholic Mass in the eyes and psyche of whatever remaining “Catholic” attend it. It is simple: no sacrifice = no need for a sacrificing priest = no need for an altar but merely a table for a commemorative meal over which the presbyter presides and in which the people of God exercise their universal priesthood and so they, not any priest, worship God in their way instead of in His.”

This is a grotesque distortion – no, worse, an actual direct untruth – simply asserted as though it were self-evident. The Novus Ordo is very clearly a valid Catholic liturgy, in which the doctrine of the Mass as sacrifice is both assumed and unambiguously stated. Consider the following, from the current English translation of Eucharistic prayer III:

Father, calling to mind the death your Son endured for our salvation, his glorious Resurrection and ascension into heaven, and ready to greet him when he comes again, we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice.
Look with favour on your Church’s offering, and see the victim whose death has reconciled us to yourself. Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ.
May he make us an everlasting gift to you and enable us to share in the inheritance of your saints, with Mary, the virgin Mother of God, with the apostles, the martyrs, and all your saints, on whose constant intercession we rely for help.
Lord, may this sacrifice, which has made our peace with you, advance the peace and salvation of all the world…

That is quite unmistakeable, and clearly, intentionally and unambiguously expressed: what is being offered is a “holy and living” sacrifice, the sacrifice of Calvary. Or consider this, from Eucharistic prayer IV:

…looking forward to his coming in glory, we offer you his body and blood, the acceptable sacrifice which brings salvation to the whole world.
Lord, look upon this sacrifice which you have given to your Church; and by your Holy Spirit, gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise.
Lord, remember those for whom we offer this sacrifice, especially [Benedict] our Pope, [name of local bishop], our bishop, and bishops and clergy everywhere…

I find the accusation of “deliberate ambiguity” particularly interesting, since many years ago, when I was training to be an Anglican clergyman, I once had to write a long essay comparing the language and theology of the then recently authorised Anglican and Catholic rites: the Novus Ordo and what was then called the “Series III” service of Holy Communion of the Church of England. My conclusion then (it was one of the factors that led me, about a decade later, to understand that I had no alternative but to become a Catholic) was that the chief linguistic difference between the rites was that Catholic language was, precisely, deliberately unambiguous and Anglican language (because the same Eucharistic prayer had to gain acceptance from Anglo-Catholics and evangelicals alike) was inevitably ambiguous.
Take the words of the epiklesis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit, in the Roman rite: “And so, Father, we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become the body and blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose command we celebrate this Eucharist.” That’s the epiklesis of Eucharistic prayer III: but the same doctrinal point has to be made about all four prayers: the assumption here is that the Eucharistic elements undergo an actual and supernaturally effected change: there is an actual point at which they become, in very truth and not merely symbolically, the body and blood of Christ. 

The equivalent Anglican words at this point are “grant that by the power of your Spirit these gifts of bread and wine may be to us his body and his blood”: the notion of a moment at which change is effected is deliberately avoided: an Anglo-Catholic can assume it, but an evangelical can see these words as referring simply to a mere subjective view, that the bread and wine in some way “to us” symbolise Christ’s body and blood. The idea of the Eucharist as sacrifice is deliberately excluded by the words which follow “we celebrate and proclaim his perfect sacrifice made once for all upon the cross”: in other words, the sacrifice of Calvary was in no way repeatable, and what we now do is simply a distant and subjective memory of it.

Whether you like the new prayers of the Roman Rite or not (personally, I think that Eucharistic prayers III and IV are magnificent, especially in Latin but, though more evidently in the new translation, even in the current English version) it is ludicrous, ludicrous, to claim that they tend towards Protestantism. 

The Novus Ordo is a valid Catholic Mass, written in unambiguous language. Let us all, whether or not we like the way it is sometimes celebrated, or the way it was originally translated, agree on that. If we can’t, we’re all in trouble.