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