Today is the Optional Memorial of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. I hate to be a wet blanket, but a lot of the legends surrounding the so-called brown scapular (that is, the Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel) are just that: legends. If you go to daily Mass, you may hear something about it, but I’ve even heard priests get confused about what is and isn’t true about the brown scapular. The most dangerous belief is in that of the Sabbatine Privilege: that if you die wearing the brown scapular, Mary will pull you from the fires of Purgatory the following Saturday (since Saturday is the day specifically dedicated to Mary in the liturgical calendar). This is based on a phony papal bull called “Sacratissimo uti culmine,” allegedly from the pen of Pope John XXII. Non-Carmelites have long questioned its authenticity, and today, even some Carmelites acknowledge that it’s not authentic.
My concern about the legends surrounding the brown scapular is that they seem to contradict lots of Catholic beliefs: on the assurance of salvation (some scapulars I saw after Mass today actually said, “Attach Great Importance to Your Scapular: It Is An Assurance of Salvation” in the accompanying documentation), on justification (salvation through faith preserved through works, not simply wearing pious jewelry), and the necessity of Christ (the legends surrounding the brown scapular seem to suggest that Mary is the one who saves us), and purgatory (as I understand it, Catholics view the primary purpose of purgatory as one of purging, not punishing: being “rescued” from this necessary process wouldn’t be good). In other words, this legend (nefariously perpetuated through forged documents) played upon the worst impulses in religion: that is, the impulse to turn religion into magic to assure one’s own eternal well-being.
Catholic Culture has a good article on the scapular and surrounding legends here, examining how it can both help and hinder one’s journey of faith.
Wearing the Brown Scapular is not an automatic guarantee of salvation. It is not a magical charm, nor is it an excuse to live in a way contrary to the teachings of the Church. It is a sacramental which has been approved by the Church for over seven centuries and is a sign of one’s decision to follow Jesus as did Mary, the perfect model of all the disciples of Christ. In addition to being an introduction into the Family of Carmel, the Brown Scapular is an expression of our belief that we will meet God in eternal life, aided by the intercession and prayer of Mary. While sacramentals prepare us to receive grace if we are in the right disposition, the Church emphasizes that only sacraments can confer sanctifying grace. (see Catechism, no. 1670.)
The Catholic Encyclopedia rejected the Sabbatine Privilege in a thorough denunciation (from 1912) here, and the section entitled “The Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel” is worth reading as well (here). It also mentions what is a permissible, and even healthy, belief. Here’s the Church’s actual stance on the Sabbatine Privilege:
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.
Those who die in charity, since they’re not in a state of mortal sin, are saved already. And since they’re devoted in a particular way — by wearing the scapular, living chastely (that is, celibately or monogamously, depending on their station in life), and saying special prayers and/or observing special fasts, over and above what is needed for a healthy Christian life throughout their lives — Mary will intercede for them in a special way. No “get of Purgatory free” card, but special graces given to those who went above and beyond what was needed (and who died in God’s grace).
Taken in this sense (that is, taken as what the Church says it is, rather than what some superstitious or misinformed people believe), the brown scapular is well within Catholic teaching, and pretty common sense. James 5:16 encourages intercessory prayer because “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” Thus, God intentionally and deliberately wills to allow His will to be altered by prayer. The brown scapular is a particular manifestation of this effective intercession via a righteous woman, Mary. That’s why the Catholic Encyclopedia concludes, “Even apart from the Bull and the tradition or legend concerning the apparition and promise of the Mother of God the interpretation of the Decree cannot be contested. ” This isn’t hocus-pocus, it’s Catholic theology.