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.
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...