The brown scapular is not a sacramental used only by Carmelites and rad trads, but can be found in pockets of devotionalism throughout the Catholic landscape. It is not difficult to find families obsessed with collecting medals, scapulars, rosaries, and other such items. When this sort of thing gets out of control, it turns into a sort of folk superstition, where concerned Catholic mothers fearfully insist that their children not leave the house without wearing their protective trinkets. There are worse errors to fall into, but it’s easy for a Catholic to obsess about an object whilst ignoring the more essential things of holiness, penance, and liturgical prayer.
As much as its promoters deny that they encourage the wearing of the brown scapular as a good luck charm or “Get Out of Hell Free” card, it’s undeniable that the beliefs surrounding the scapular lend themselves to such presumption. For many, even the basic minimums of praying the Little Office daily and engaging in the Carmelite spiritual life in order to receive the graces of the sacramental are not sufficiently explained.
In my attempts to research the brown scapular, it was difficult to find any scholarly and historical literature. Most of it is devotional, meant for credulous laymen rather than critical thinkers. While devotional literature has its place, it is not a sufficient replacement for theological analysis. To that end, I here provide some brief analyses of a few relevant and apparently “official” texts. (In a future post I will look more into the historical facts of scapular’s origins.)
Scapular Catechesis (Morello)
The following is excerpted from Fr. Sam Anthony Morello’s Q&A catechesis in The Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel: Catechesis and Ritual, published in 2000. (Reproduced online here.) A few relevant points are highlighted in bold.
What is the relationship of the Carmelite Order to the Brown Scapular?
The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is the habit of the Carmelite Order. For the religious members of the Order it takes the form of two long, undecorated panels of brown cloth joined at the shoulders and falling, one to the front and one to the back. For the laity it takes the form of a two smaller pieces of brown or dark cloth, preferably plain, joined over the shoulder by ribbons, and falling, one to the back, the other to the front. As the Order’s habit, the scapular signifies some degree of affiliation to the Carmelites.[...]
The Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel is the common habit of all branches of the Carmelite Family and a sign of unity of that family. For that reason the Scapular Confraternity and similar associations of the faithful centering around this sacramental belong not to any one branch of Carmel but to the entire Carmelite family. Thus, there is only one common public association of the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
If a person wears the scapular, but has no formal association to the Order, does that person still gain the benefits associated with the scapular?
A person who wears the scapular and practices the spirituality of the Carmelite Order has an affiliation, loose as it may be, to the Carmelite family and so shares in the graces traditionally associated with the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. However, simply to wear the scapular without accepting the responsibilities attached to it would be to reduce this precious sacramental to the status of a charm or good-luck piece.This catechism insists on the intrinsic connection between the wearing of the brown scapular and an affiliation with the Carmelite Order and submission to Carmelite spirituality. This scapular is not a universally generic sign of Marian piety or devotion, but a sign of affiliation or confraternity with Carmel.
Fr. Morello also has this to say about the so-called Sabbatine Privilege:
What is the official status of the Sabbatine Privilege?
Historical research has shown that the alleged fourteenth-century appearance of the Blessed Mother to Pope John XXII is without historical foundation. As a matter of fact, in the year 1613 the Holy See determined that the decree establishing the “Sabbatine Privilege” was unfounded and the Church admonished the Carmelite Order not to preach this doctrine. Unfortunately, the Order did not always comply with this directive of the Holy See.
At the time the Carmelites were instructed to stop mentioning the “Sabbatine Privilege” the Holy See acknowledged that the faithful may devoutly believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary by her continuous intercession, merciful prayers, merits, and special protection will assist the souls of deceased brothers and sisters and members of the confraternity, especially on Saturday, the day which the church dedicates to the Blessed Virgin.Thus the Sabbatine Privilege would appear to be confirmed as a pious legend with no firm basis in history.
750th Anniversary Letter (Chalmers & Maccise)
A 2001 letter from Frs. Joseph Chalmers (Prior General) and Camilo Maccise (Superior General) on the 750th anniversary of the brown scapular also insists on its peculiarly Carmelite nature:
The Scapular is essentially a “habit”. Those who receive it are aggregated or associated in varying degrees with Carmel that is dedicated to the service of Our Lady for the good of the whole Church.[…] Our tradition shows the firmest conviction that the habit and the Scapular have no salvific effect unless we see their meaning as Mary’s habit which affiliates us to the Carmelite Family, and we live according to her example. (28, 30)Oddly, they also speak of the Carmelite habit as if it is reducible to a Marian habit. The letter goes on at some length to describe the Marian aspects of Carmelite spirituality, which is all well and good, but one might fear that it is at the expense of ignoring the order’s more ancient spiritual influence of the desert prophets of old, especially St. Elijah. The Second Eve’s life on earth was not exactly an eremitical one.
Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (CDW)
The Congregation for Divine Worship released an updated Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy in 2001, which includes the following section on the brown scapular:
The Brown Scapular and other Scapulars
205. The history of Marian piety also includes “devotion” to various scapulars, the most common of which is devotion to the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Its use is truly universal and, undoubtedly, it is one of those pious practices which the Council described as “recommended by the Magisterium throughout the centuries.”
The Scapular of Mount Carmel is a reduced form of the religious habit of the Order of the Friars of the Blessed Virgin of Mount Carmel. Its use is very diffuse and often independent of the life and spirituality of the Carmelite family.[…]
The imposition of the Scapular should be celebrated with “the seriousness of its origins. It should not be improvised. The Scapular should be imposed following a period of preparation during which the faithful are made aware of the nature and ends of the association they are about to join and of the obligations they assume.”
The assertion that use of the brown scapular is “truly universal” is questionable, especially in our implicitly universalistic age. There is also the strange contrast between the blithe observation of the scapular’s practical independence from Carmel, and the so-called seriousness of the obligations it entails. One could reasonably ask how a reduced Carmelite habit could be treated seriously when it drops all substantial ties to Carmel.
More to come...