Nutt on Casel

As a teenager I was much taken by Casel’s theory the presence of the events of Christ’s life in the liturgy, which I heard at second hand, not knowing that it was Casel’s. But later, as a young monk in theological formation, I got into a lot of arguments with a Casel-enthusiast, who drew the most absurd consequences from the theory. At that point I rejected the theory, but wasn’t able to give a full account of why it was wrong.

I recently read Roger W. Nutt’ Excellent General Principles of Sacramental Theology, and I think he puts his finger on the problem:

An important variation of moral theory of sacramental causality is the influential “mystery-presence” (mysteriengegenwart) theory of twentieth-century Benedictine Dom Odo Casel. Casel was a monk of the famed Monastery of Maria Laach, which was an influential center of the liturgical movement. His most original contribution is his presentation of the Church’s liturgy and sacraments in light of his careful study of the ancient notion of “mystery” in biblical, patristic, and pagan sources. “The mystery,” according to Casel, “is a sacred ritual action in which a saving deed is made present through the rite; the congregation, by performing the rite, take part in the saving act, and thereby win salvation.” The name “mystery-presence” is derived from Casel’s unification of the rite or “ritual action” with the presence of the “saving deed” in the mystery.

Casel’s work contains many insights, but his theory of the efficacious presence of Christ’s saving deeds in the sacraments creates, perhaps, even more ambiguities about the nature of the sacraments and their mode of causation than the insights that it contains. In particular, Casel never clarifies how a completed historical event, a saving action, is made present to a recipient who is separated from the event in time and space. For Casel, it is not the power of Christ’s saving acts, or a mediation or participation in them through the signification of the signs, but the presence of the events themselves that constitutes the mystery of the sacraments.

Furthermore, as Edward Schillebeeckx points out, Casel’s view of Christ’s saving deeds in history fails to account for their “perennial character.” Given that “time itself is irreversible,” Schillebeeckx observes, “a contradiction is inherent” in Casel’s thesis. “As the realization in human form of the redeeming Trinity,” Schillebeeckx argues against Casel, “the historical mysteries of Christ’s life, which were the personal acts of the God-man, are a permanent, enduring reality in the mode of the Lord’s existence in glory. The mystery of saving worship, or Christ’s act of redemption is, in the mode of glory, an eternally actual reality, as the Epistle to the Hebrews repeatedly stresses.”

Leeming points out that Casel’s presentation constitutes, fundamentally, a redefinition of mystery as an event. “What is present is not some mysterious efficacy in the symbols, nor the life of God, nor the person of Christ, nor the effect produced,” Leeming notes, “but there is present the saving act itself as it existed in Christ’s human life and it is present to produce conformity to the ‘mystery’ of Christ in us.” This means, Leeming continues, that “it is not Christus passus who is present, but ipsa passio, as advocates of the opinion so often assert and insist. The presence is said to transcend space and time, and sometimes the ‘saving acts’ are said to be present per modum substantiae …”

Furthermore, the subject of Casel’s mystery-presence theory is the experience that the worshipping community has of the salvific deed. “Some scholars,” Reginald Lynch explains, “see the emphasis on mystery that appears during the modern period as an extension of the nominalist emphasis on the radical omnipotence and freedom of God and its accompanying reticence regarding causal connections.” As a result of this trend, “the rhetoric of mystery can appear as a supplement for metaphysical explanation.” Lynch observes that under the influence of Casel’s “methodological choices,” therefore, “there was a decided shift [in the twentieth century] toward liturgy-as-event using the category of symbol or sign.”

It is the sacraments, precisely as causes in the order of instrumental efficiency, which make the power of Christ’s saving action and his risen life present throughout time by their signification. There is no need to conflate sacrament and historical event—or to insinuate that the sacrament becomes the historical event in mystery. Christ instituted the signs precisely for the sake of actively using their signification as the causal (instrumental) means of applying the power of his Passion and risen life.

pp. 132-134

7 thoughts on “Nutt on Casel

  1. Hello Fr. Edmund. I had not heard of Casel before, and am interested to hear more from you about this. On the face of it, Casel’s theory sounds more plausible to me than the claims of his opponents whom you quote, but I imagine there is plenty I am not yet seeing. It does seem certain to me to begin with that time is not an absolute restriction on reality itself; if it were then there could be no prophesy, and the re-enactment, or rather presence, of Christ’s sacrifice at every Mass would be impossible. Do you think that that is right?


    • Hi! How nice to see your name show up in my comment box. I used to think exactly what you say. But now I do think that time is an absolute restriction on reality in this sense: One time cannot be at another time. That is, one time cannot both be and not be another time. This doesn’t exclude memory and prophecy, since in them a past or future time is “present” only in thought, but not in reality. But it does exclude time travel, the “Groundhog Day” thing, and certain ways of understanding the presence of the Mysteries. Part of what has led me to this is reflecting on how the Mass is a Sacrifice, in addition to being a Sacrament. Christ Himself is really, truly, and substantially present in the Mass, but the Mass does not harm Him, He is not killed again. His Sacrifice is “reenacted” sacramentally, insofar as the double consecration signifies the separation of His body and blood on the Cross, but the Mass does not actually separate His body and blood (hence the whole Christ is present under both species). Fr. John Saward put it like this (in a private e-mail, which I presume he won’t mind my sharing:

      To understand Pere Garrigou’s distinction between a “physical” separation of the Body and Blood of Our Lord on Calvary and a “mystical and sacramental” separation in the Mass, we must recall a distinction made by St. Thomas and the Council of Trent between that which is present in the Blessed Sacrament “in virtue of the words [of consecration]” and that which is present “in virtue of natural concomitance”. In virtue of natural concomitance, everything that naturally accompanies the Body of Christ is present with the Body under the species of bread: Blood, Soul, and Divinity. (Likewise with the Blood under the species of wine.) The whole Christ is present under either species. However, in virtue of the words of consecration, the Body alone is present under the species of bread, and the Blood alone is present under the species of wine. This “separation” is “mystical and sacramental”, because it depends on that which is signified and effected by the sacramental form, “This is my Body”, “This is the Chalice of my Blood”, applied to the matter, the bread and wine. Transubstantiation is the change of the whole substance of bread into the Body of Christ, and of the whole substance of wine into the Blood of Christ, not, strictly speaking, the change of the bread and wine into the whole Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The whole Christ is present, as I have said, but through natural concomitance. Thus without contradiction we can say both that the Body of Christ under the sacramental species in the Eucharist is a corpus gloriosum, the very same body, risen and ascended, that is at the right hand of the Father in Heaven in “its proper species” and that Christ in the Sacrament exists in a “victimal state”, i.e. with Body and Blood sacramentally separated. Jonathan asks: How can a historical event make itself present but in a different mode? The explanation I have given goes some way to answer that question. The Church has never taught, could never teach, that the Sacrifice of the Cross and the Sacrifice of the Mass are numerically identical, because that would mean that the Sacrifice of the Cross is repeated, with all its historical and physical circumstances, over and over again. (No Groundhog Days.) No, the identity of the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacrifice of the Cross is an essential unity through the sameness of the Victim, the Priest (who in the Mass acts through the instrumentality of the ordained priest), and the ends for which the Sacrifice is offered. The differences are manifest: there is no physical separation of Body and Blood in the Mass (the Sacrifice is offered in an “unbloody” manner”); and, whereas Christ on the Cross was meriting our salvation, in the Mass He applies His merits and the saving power of His Sacrifice to the living and the dead.


  2. Isn’t Casel’s understanding upheld in Mediator Dei? “Since His bitter sufferings constitute the principal mystery of our redemption, it is only fitting that the Catholic faith should give it the greatest prominence. This mystery is the very center of divine worship since the Mass represents and renews it every day…” And rather the opposite of nominalism to proclaim the sacraments as both the sign and the reality present in signification.


    • I don’t think Mediator Dei commits us to the full Mysteriengegenwart theory. The Mass represents “His bitter sufferings” by signifying them (in an extremely realistic way, since the same body that hung on the cross is truly present on the altar), and renews them by causing their effects to be applied to us. But this doesn’t mean that the Mystery abolishes the difference between that time and ours.


      • While that’s true, reading again through the “The Christian Mystery” it is not the temporal event which we experience, but the position of Dom Casel is that the liturgy takes the worshiper out of time entirely into the eternal presence of Christ’s Sacrifice, or as close to it as we can come, the “aion.”


  3. Hello Pater – I’m not very knowledgeable about sacramental theology so apologies if this is completely off, but I’ve been reading Meeting Christ in the Sacraments by Fr. Colman O’Neill OP for Easter, and he has an interesting approach to this question.

    He rejects Dom Casel’s view for roughly the same reasons you do. However, he goes on to make the following remarks: “It must also be taken into account that the acts of Christ’s will which are governed by his beatific and his infused knowledge are not subject to the time which measures material things and the forms of knowledge with which we are familiar. Our thoughts change rapidly from moment to moment, keeping time with the impressions we receive from our senses … [B]oth [Christ’s beatific and infused knowledge] … can be fixed unchangingly on a single object so that the self-same act of thought is held throughout the normal succession of events that continue to take place on the plane of corporeal reality. … The significance of this for Christ’s mission is that the identical acts of mind and will which were his on Calvary are maintained now that he is in heaven … [T]he teaching of the Church on the sacraments, especially in what concerns the relation between Calvary and the Mass, can best be explained on the hypothesis that Christ’s saving act is still maintained in heaven … [T]he same moment of thought includes for Christ both Calvary and the whole history of the Church. It is by one and the same act that he determines on Calvary the measure in which individuals are to benefit from his sacrifice and that he now determines in heaven the efficacy of the sacramental means of distributing his benefits. For Christ, holding in his mind his redemptive act, there is no succession from Calvary to the present day. Certainly the external actions of Calvary, the suffering and the visible sacrifice, are past and the history of the Church moves forward through time; but Christ’s mind moves to another rhythm as does that of God and that of the angels.” (pg.s 56-58)

    It seems to me that this is perhaps a way of preserving what is attractive in Dom Casel’s view without the problematic idea that a completed past event can continue to occur in the present. I’d be curious to know what you think if you see this and have time to respond.

    Liked by 1 person

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