Thursday, June 9, 2016

Considering the Scapular (Part II)

There is an interesting find—if you follow the footnote trail in the relevant Wikipedia articles—of a July 1904 article in the old Irish Ecclesiastical Record about “The Origin of the Scapular: A Criticism,” by Fr. Herbert Thurston, SJ. Responding to an earlier article in the same publication by Fr. Benedict Zimmerman, OCD, he casts a skeptical gaze on the stories about the vision of St. Simon Stock and the promises given by the Blessed Virgin to those who wear the scapular.

The vision of the brown scapular is supposedly retold by one Peter Swanyngton, St. Simon’s companion, secretary, and confessor. Fr. Thurston notes discrepancies in Peter’s purported letter, pointing out its internal dating errors and the fact that Peter apparently did not know which pope he and Simon personally visited (cf. ibid. 60-2). As he summarizes the problems:
The document professes to be what it is not; it is grossly inaccurate in names and dates; it was first heard of three hundred years after the death of its supposed author; it was brought to light by a person who was very far from being unbiassed or disinterested; it was never submitted to any kind of expert criticism; it disappeared unaccountably when its publication was demanded. That Father [John] Chéron [in the mid-1600s] deliberately sat himself down to forge a purely fictitious document I do not suggest; but that having come across some sort of account a century or more older than his time, he chose to assume that it was a contemporary narrative, attributed it to Swanyngton, and manipulated it in accordance with this idea, seems to me in the highest degree probable. (64)
Thurston also points out that Carmelite breviaries published before Chéron’s time made no mention of the scapular vision in their notes about a major Carmelite Marian feast (65).

Later he is reasonably skeptical about the claim of promises made during the vision of St. Simon:
But what is still more noteworthy, in the version which Father Zimmerman believes to be Sibert [de Beka]’s highly decorated elaboration of the primitive record, our Lady is made to promise salvation to him to dies in the habit, ‘if only he be worthy’ [emphasis in original]. (‘In hoc quisquis morietur, modo eo dignus, æternum non sentiet ignem.’) The promise in Swanyngton is absolutely without condition. Are we asked to believe that of these two accounts, both supposed to be mediæval, the cautious and qualified form belongs to the later accretions of the legend, while the unconditional promise is to be regarded as authentic and primitive? This must surely be considered a very exceptional inversion of the usual order. (68-9)
The similarity of the legendary vision of St. Simon to visions given to other medieval orders is also noted:
The annals of most religious Orders contain some similar tradition, generally founded on an apparition, more or less vaguely attested, and promising salvation to all who persevere in the Order until death. Father Zimmerman says that such a tradition existed among the Benedictines, the most ancient of cenobites. Analogous revelations are also piously credited among many of the more modern Orders, such as, for instance, the Society of Jesus. It is to be noted then, that if, in the fourteenth century such a privilege was believed to attach to the Carmelite habit, it was in no sort of way the exclusive prerogative of the Carmelites. (69)
If we are to extend credulity to the story of St. Simon Stock’s vision of his order’s habit, surely the same could be extended to similar visions of other orders. Might it not be said that any Catholic who faithfully lives the spiritual rule of any good religious order will be assured of salvation? That is why the Counsels are given to us, after all.

It should also be pointed out that Fr. Thurston wrote a couple of follow-up articles to his 1904 article in 1911. “The Scapular Tradition and Its Defenders” is a response to a few articles by Fr. James Rushe defending the popular devotion to the scapular and some of the odder Carmelite traditions, like their belief that the Prophet Elias literally founded their order. He closes his response with the observation that “we cannot but regret that the world at large should be invited to draw the inference that intellectual honesty in historical matters is not on the whole encouraged by the ascetical Orders of the Church.”

The other, “A Recent Confirmation of the Scapular Tradition,” Fr. Thurston responds to a certain Père Marie-Joseph du Sacré Cœur who had attacked Fr. Zimmerman as being himself a skeptic and historicist, for Fr. Zed had admitted more about the historical instability of the Carmelite claims than his superiors approved. Thurston notes that Zimmerman had been since deposed from the office of historiographer of the Carmelite order, and so quotes a private letter from Zimmerman himself to dismantle Père Marie-Joseph’s claims about the origins of the separate scapular.

(I note briefly and with some mild amusement that Montague Summers attacked Thurston at some length in his introduction to the 1928 edition of The Malleus Maleficarum, writing of him that “Tender miracles of healing wrought at some old sanctuary, the records of some hidden life of holiness secretly lived amongst us in the cloister or the home, these things seem to provoke Fr. Thurston to such a pitch of annoyance that he cannot refrain from venting his utmost spleen. The obsession is morbid” (xxviii). Perhaps it is so, or perhaps Summers wished to bury Thurston under the suspicion of Modernism. I observe also that in 1933 Thurston wrote a short complaint titled Superstition.)

Whether or not Fr. Thurston’s analysis is devastating against the popular beliefs of the brown scapular is beyond my own abilities to judge. It is one of the few scholarly critiques of this sacramental, which was viciously opposed by the Carmelite order, and apparently quite thoroughly ignored by the Church at large. Devotional literature is by nature non-academic; that is no fault as such, but it is not sufficient that books meant for a broad readership should be the only ones readily available.

Considerations on the cultural ramifications of the scapular to come...


  1. For the record, check out the brief Wikipedia entry on Father Thurston. Years ago, I acquired a used copy of his four-volume revision of Butler's Lives, much to my regret. His motto appeared to be, "If it moves, debunk it." Granted, pious traditions can go overboard, but I believe that, overall, harshly skeptical slash-and-burn approaches to these traditions have done much more harm than good.

    1. What I've read of his "Superstition" does make me wonder how far Fr. Thurston may have gone in the opposite direction of credulity. However, the points he makes about the existence of other supposed Marian revelations to various orders, and the alternate "if only he be worthy" reading of Mary's promise, are enough to earn him a hearing.

    2. Thurston's Lives of the Saints is questionable to say the least, but here he finds no contemporary evidence at all and significant papal legislation to the contrary of the pious belief.

  2. Could your next series after this one discuss the origins of the three days of darkness prophecy that floats around mostly trad (and some conservative) circles? Been a reader for about a year and a half btw.

  3. It seems Rorate is now playing this game:

  4. I wonder what to think about the passage from Fr. Morello in the previous post: "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."

    The relevant (and rather cautious, almost sceptical, citing Zimmenrmann) Catholic Encyclopedia article ( has a bit different things to say. The decree by the Holy Office "which appeared in 1613, expresses no opinion concerning the genuineness of the Bull, but confines itself to declaring what the Carmelites may preach of its contents."

    The text of it appears to be cited in a summary of indulgences and privileges of the Confraternity of the Scapular of Mount Carmel approved by the Congregation of Indulgences on 4 July, 1908:

    "The privilege of Pope John XXII, commonly [vulgo] known as the Sabbatine, which was approved and confirmed by Clement VII ("Ex clementi", 12 August 1530), St. Pius V ("Superna dispositione", 18 Feb., 1566), Gregory XIII ("Ut laudes", 18 Sept., 1577), and others, and also by the Holy Roman General Inquisition under Paul V on 20 January, 1613, in a Decree to the following effect:

    It is permitted to the Carmelite Fathers to preach that the Christian people may piously believe in the help which the souls of brothers and members, who have departed this life in charity, have worn in life the scapular, have ever observed chastity, have recited the Little Hours [of the Blessed Virgin], or, if they cannot read, have observed the fast days of the Church, and have abstained from flesh meat on Wednesdays and Saturdays (except when Christmas falls on such days), may derive after death — especially on Saturdays, the day consecrated by the Church to the Blessed Virgin — through the unceasing intercession of Mary, her pious petitions, her merits, and her special protection."

    So, indeed, "only" a special protection by Our Lady is mentioned, and Saturdays, too, without specifying when one gets out of the Purgatory, though. The Encyclopedia article also mentions that an analogous document of 1866 still mentioned the decree by John XXIII. If indeed this privilege was also mentioned by Pius XII, as one commentator posted, and considering that it concerns very serious things (Purgatory), informing others about it hardly can be dismissed as "playing this game". Besides, to profit from this privilege, one must die in the state of grace, and the works prescribed are either necessary for that (chastity) or have attached indulgence anyway (praying the Little Office of BVM).

    1. These posts have actually prompted me to consider wearing the scapular again. I want to dig deeper into Carmelite spirituality and see if it can spiritually benefit me.

      Of all the scapulars I've seen, this is the best looking one. The lack of Sabbatine Priveleges on it piqued my interest:

      Also, from an Amazon review:
      "Graces are bestowed upon those who wear the scapular IF one follows the spirituality of the Carmelite Order. Each scapular is different, but with the wearing of the Brown Scapular you should be doing the following:
      -frequent participation in the Mass and reception of Holy Communion;
      -frequent reading of and meditation on the Word of God in Sacred Scripture;
      -the regular praying of at least a part of the Liturgy of the Hours (Search for Divine Office to find;
      -imitation of and devotion to Mary;
      -the practice of the virtues, notably: charity, chastity (according to one’s state in life), and obedience to the will of God."

      Simply wearing it as a charm is not enough. There is far more required.

    2. Meant to reply to the whole thread. Not you specifically ;)

    3. I was enrolled in it as a child, with the substitution of being allowed to say the Rosary instead of the Office. I always heard that bit about it not being a charm, but obligations to be kept to wear it well.

    4. Was flesh meat abstinence on top of the Friday abstinence? Also how do those of you who work pray the little office?

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