Now to ‘Scape the Scapular

Now to ‘Scape the Scapular October 18, 2011

The Bright Maidens (a blogging network of young Catholic women) are writing about scapulars this week, and I figured I’d poke my nose in. A scapular is a piece of cloth worn around the neck. It is a sacramental (an instrument of grace, like holy water or some blessed medals). The one all the bloggers seem to be focusing on is the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (also called the brown scapular).

The virtue of this scapular was supposed to have been revealed to St. Simon Stock in 1251 when an apparition of Mary told him:

Take, beloved son, this scapular of the order as a badge of my confraternity and for you and all Carmelites a special sign of grace; whoever dies in this garment, will not suffer everlasting fire. It is the sign of salvation, a safeguard in dangers, a pledge of peace and of the covenant

To the best of my knowledge, the Catholic Church has not certified or denied that the brown scapular is a Get-Out-of-Hell free card, but it’s easy to see how people get that idea. I find this strain of salvation theory to be totally bizarre.

The scapular smacks of gamesmanship, the same kind of weird salvation-optimization that led people to delay baptizing their children on the grounds that they would be a waste to cleanse innocent children of sins. Better to put the sacrament on hold until the children were past the age of reason and preferably in imminent danger, so it would have maximum salvic impact.

It’s pretty easy to make a negative, reducto ad absurdum case against this soteriological approach. The last time it came up. I was arguing with a relentlessly optimizing Catholic who admitted, by his own logic, he should prefer the world where I died as an infant to the one it looks like we’re living in, where I remain an atheist for my whole life. In fact, in this framework, this blog, and my RCIA attendance are essentially a high-stakes gamble. If I converted, he’d be delighted, but if all this studying doesn’t take, I might have damned myself by destroying any case for an invincible ignorance exemption.

Even working from within the Catholic set of axioms, I think there’s a positive case that accepting this kind of salvation theory would put it in conflict with a better model. Purgatory doesn’t need to be defined as a punishment – the kind of thing you want to ransom yourself from – it can be a crucible. Burning off the dross might be painful, but that’s a side effect of the actual goal of refining your character.

Trista, one of the Bright Maidens, shared an anecdote about a scapular-wearing woman who believed that the sacramental would result in Mary plucking people out of Purgatory ‘early.’ Sign on to that worldview, and you’ve put arriving in Heaven as the telos of your theology instead of dressing up as Christ.

If you make your pitch on the niceties of the afterlife instead of the formation of character, don’t be surprised when you lose people to Valhalla.

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  • Quid est veritas

    It doesn’t work like a “get-out-of-hell” ticket. Rather it is a sign of a kind of covenant between Our Lady and the wearer. She has promised to dispense special graces to those who wear it. This is what Catholic Encyclopedia says:
    For this privilege declares nothing else than that all those who out of true veneration and love for the Blessed Virgin constantly wear the scapular in a spirit of fidelity and confiding faith, after they have been placed by the Church itself with this habit or badge under the special protection of the Mother of God, shall enjoy this special protection in the matter and crisis which most concerns them for time and eternity. Whoever, therefore, even though he be now a sinner, wears the badge of the Mother of God throughout life as her faithful servant, not presumptuously relying on the scapular as on a miraculous amulet, but trustfully confiding in the power and goodness of Mary, may securely hope that Mary will through her powerful and motherly intercession procure for him all the necessary graces for true conversion and for perseverance in good.

    • Gilbert

      Or to translate the Catholicese:

      It’s not that one gets to Heaven without character building, it’s that Mary will help with the character building so that one gets into heaven.

      • Ayup.

        There’s more to the devotion than just putting on the Scapular itself. It’s an expression of affiliation (however loose) with the spirituality of the Carmelite order.

        Here’s a good Carmelite page on the Scapular. It includes info on whether “the Catholic Church has… certified or denied that the brown scapular is a Get-Out-of-Hell free card” (short answer: denied.)

  • I don’t even tighten my belt to keep my pants at my waist. I would certainly never wear a scapular or buy into it. But it’s fascinating to think people do.

    Atheists for fashion freedom unite. 🙂

    • DarwinCatholic

      Be careful, you don’t want people seeing the cracks in atheism…

      (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)

  • Gilbert

    I don’t buy the scapular thing either, but I’ll put in a word for indulgences:

    While in the Church we are all individuals (clue life of Brian reference) we are also all in this together. Other Christian’s work can contribute to the betterment of our character. That idea is not quite as far-fetched as it might seem on first sight. For example if we manage to create a better world avoiding sin might become easier for future generations. Then they might be better people without that being originally their own merit. Another example: The way we social animals work regularly praying with friends will change us a lot more than regularly praying alone. And there probably are a lot of more subtle connections I can’t think of. So while each soul gets bettered individually that betterment also has an intensely communal dimension. And an indulgence is basically a trust in that communal dimension.

  • I wear the brown scapular. I see it as a reminder to maintain, as best as I am able, a state of perfect repentance for my sins. I am confident that if I do not die in a state of grace or perfect repentance, God will take it from me before I go.

  • Catholics at least have some lingering thoughts that this is magical. My wife and I turned our mattress last year as it had been two years or whatever, and as we lifted it up (this was about a year into my deconversion), I saw a green scapular under my side of the bed. She told me someone told her to put it there “just in case” it might help! I was shocked. Grace/faith through osmosis! I felt like the Princess and the Pea… except that my [apparently] possessed self never felt it beneath me!

    • Not *all* Catholics have “lingering thoughts” that these devotions are magical.

  • DarwinCatholic


    The Church is, I think, fairly clear that the scapular is a devotion, not a magical item that gets anyone out of anything automatically. That said, it is the sort of thing that a lot of people with tendencies towards superstition or magical thinking can latch on to. It seems to me that the historical record is clear that humans just have a strong tendency towards that kind of thinking — inside or outside of organized religion.

  • I am a convert, and a wearer of the brown scapular and a giver of the green, to those that I love and pray for anyway on a daily basis. I have read all the promises of both scapulars–but my participation is more about having the Blessed Mother add her prayers to mine, thereby strengthening my prayer. The one I wear is that reminder that I have chosen to live a certain way, and strengthens my resolve when I falter. The promises, in my opinion, are really for everyone that strives to live a virtuous life. The only difference is that the person that wears the scapular has made a conscious decision and commitment. Any “extra” benefit, I would venture, is for the faith required to do that.

  • Maiki

    The Scapulars are sacramentals, not sacraments, so they cannot impart sacramental grace, so they cannot, by definition, “get anyone out of Hell” free….

    I think their primary value is the same as the big ole scapulars religious wear over or as part of their habits. It is a uniform for sanctity. People talk about “dressing for the part” or of homemakers putting on shoes in the morning to get things done… I think a scapular is a good reminder that, “hey, I’m actively signed up on this business of being Holy, and this scratchy woolen thing around my neck is here to remind me on that in moments when it is easier to be lazy, lustful, angry, prideful, envious, greedy or gluttonous.” That is the purely material/secular value of the thing.

    Of course, it is a sacramental, so it also has spiritual value outside of physical/psychological value. I think of sacramentals as a “physical” way of praying. Like lighting a candle in memory of someone or setting flowers in their grave, it is a way to say your remembrance is with them even when your mind is not actively there. Some sacramentals work this way through prayer — they are there as an aid to unceasing prayer.

    Both the material and the spiritual effects of the sacramental aid in attaining the goal of dying in union with God. But they are not magical — they do nothing without an interior disposition towards the Good and previous Sacramental Grace.

  • Hidden One

    I wear the brown scapular. So do some of my Catholic friends. They’re certainly not magical – or sacraments. The brown scapular is perhaps from some angles the most ‘extreme’ sacramental, but it’s still just a sacramental. Took this convert years to understand.