In an age of exaggerated ecumenism that is further fueled by a scientific witch hunt to burn all religious superstition, the Brown Scapular has lost much of its popularity. With its innate connection to Marian devotion it remains one of the most powerful Catholic sacramentals even as it slides into disuse. As a particular expression of Marian devotion, the Brown Scapular may have slid into disuse, but it remains a particularly powerful sacramental of the Church; one that is particularly needed in our time. To place the Brown Scapular within the context of a healthy spirituality, we must first speak briefly about sacramentals in general. It is not just the Brown Scapular that carries an air of superstition, but all sacramentals. These sentiments are not unfounded as their patrons often treat them as such. For many people, both Catholic and not, there seems to be little difference between sacramentals and something like a dream catcher. Therefore it is fitting to lay the authentically Catholic foundation in hopes of returning the Brown Scapular to its primacy of place among these gifts of the Church.
The Church and Sacramentals
Each of the Seven Sacraments are an objective source of grace, even if the amount of grace a given individual receives is dependent upon their personal readiness. Sacramentals, on the other hand, do not bestow grace, but rather aid those who are using them to receive grace. The Sacraments have been instituted by Christ and the Church is merely the custodian of them while sacramentals are instituted by the Church as part of her binding and loosing authority. In making the distinction between sacramentals and the Church’s Seven Sacraments, the Catechism summarizes, saying, “Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (CCC 1671).
If they don’t bestow grace, then why should we use them, especially since, as can often happen, they appear to be tools of superstition? It is because in establishing (or blessing) a sacramental, the Church acts as an underwriter by attaching the prayer of the entire Church to that of the individual. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful indeed (James 5:16), but the prayer of a righteous man joined to the prayer of Christ’s Mystical Body carries with it divine assurance to be heard (c.f. Mt 18:19). This makes each of the sacramentals a powerful aid in the pursuit of holiness, even if they do not bestow it directly. At that, they always require certain conditions on the part of the patron in order to be effective helps. This awareness must always be at the forefront of our use of sacramentals to keep from plunging into superstition.
In this regard the Brown Scapular is particularly conspicuous because it carries with it a promise from Our Lady that “Whosoever dies wearing this Scapular shall not suffer eternal fire.” Properly situated within the Church’s understanding of sacramentals, we can see why this particular sacramental might be especially popular and in a certain sense necessary. Like all sacramentals, the physical Scapular is a sign pointing towards a deeper reality. It acts as a sign sealing the covenant instituted by Christ on the Cross of the mutual entrustment of the Blessed Mother and each of the Faithful (c.f. John 19:26). In that way it is like a wedding ring (another Catholic sacramental) that both signifies and, in a certain sense, seals the covenantal commitment of spouses.
Backed by the commitment of the Church, the Brown Scapular guarantees her constant Maternal protection and the wearer has a growing confidence in her most powerful intercession. Just as the wedding ring increases the sensitivity of the spouses to the presence of the beloved, especially when they are not seen or felt, the Brown Scapular makes the “wearer more sensitive to the Virgin Mother’s loving presence in their lives” Pope St. John Paul II, Letter to the Carmelites on 750th Anniversary of the Bestowal of the Scapular). It is worn as a “habit” suggesting that it is meant to represent the habit of committing oneself to the constant protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary both “now and at the hour of our death.” Thus it also becomes a sign of the grace of final perseverance.
Just as it takes more than simply putting on a wedding ring to be married, so too with the Brown Scapular. As Pius XII says, “For the Holy Scapular, which may be called the Habit or Garment of Mary, is a Sign and a Pledge of the protection of the Mother of God. But not for this reason, however, may they who wear the Scapular think that they can gain eternal salvation while remaining slothful and negligent of spirit, for the Apostle warns us: ‘In fear and trembling shall you work out your salvation.’” (Pius XII, Letter to the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel). To guard against becoming “slothful and negligent of spirit” we should seek to bring about the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart by adopting her spirit of fiat as our own.
Why We Need the Brown Scapular Now
Given ratification by the Holy See in 1908, the so-called Sabbatine privilege can be invoked for those who in addition to being vested in and wearing the Brown Scapular like a habit, also practice chastity according to their state in life and daily recite the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin. Pope Leo XIII also gave permission for priests to commute the third condition and substitute a similar good work like a Daily Rosary to meet the conditions of modern life. The promise, directly from the lips of Our Lady is that “as a tender Mother, I will descend into purgatory on the Saturday after their death, and will deliver them into the heavenly mansions of life everlasting.”
The point though is that the promise carries with it additional duties. There is nothing superstitious about it, but both natural and supernatural encouragement to do those things that we know will lead to sanctity. This is why one can’t help but see the coincidence in the timing of the ratification and Our Lady’s appearance to the visionaries at Fatima less than a decade later. One of her great concerns that she expressed to the children was the number of souls who were going to hell because of lust—more than any other sin as a matter of fact. Given the emergence of a hyper-sexualized culture, the problem has only become more acute in the century since. So vicious has this attack become that it is only with help from above that we can even hope to achieve chastity. The Brown Scapular becomes a pledge from Our Lady to jump in the foxhole with us and fight. With close proximity to the heart, the habit will act as a protecting shield for those who wear it.