I haven’t been writing blog posts lately because I’m working to finish my next book and quite frankly, after almost twenty years of blogging I am finally just about blogged out.

However, a conversation on Twitter has got me going and it seems like the topic is worth a blog post for clarification. The topic is the “green scapular”

This Catholic devotion  was given to the world by the Blessed Virgin Mary through a series of apparitions to Sister Justine Bisqueyburu, a Daughter of Charity, in the early 1840’s in Paris, France. On the Feast of the Nativity of Mary, Sept. 8th, 1840, the Mother of Jesus Christ appeared holding in her right hand her Immaculate Heart, mounted by flames and holding in her other hand a scapular.

At its core, the devotion is to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the devotion consists of the usual rosaries, prayers and devotions to the Blessed Virgin. Great favors and miracles are attributed to the scapular, and what got me going a little was the idea that simply by placing the green scapular under someone’s mattress or pillow they will be healed, their soul will be saved, they will be converted–and any other number and types of miracles would take place.

Now we should always stop and pause. Our faith is rational and we are encouraged to be suitably skeptical about alleged supernatural occurrences. The Catholic approach is never to deny the possibility of miracles or the influence of supernatural forces, but always to look first for natural explanations of what seems to be supernatural in origin. This is not to doubt God’s supernatural power. It is simply to use common sense.

The Green scapular is credited with conversions. Was it the Green Scapular under the pillow or the prayerful person’s life, witness and love? The green scapular is credited with miraculous healings in a hospital and saving people from suicide. It is okay to ask why all the people in that hospital were not healed and why other people in the same hospital went on to commit suicide. These are ordinary questions anyone would pose–and asking those questions is not a sign of unfaithfulness, apostasy, modernism or heresy.

Not to ask those questions encourages those who are doubtful about the Catholic faith to be stronger in their doubt. They already thought Catholics were superstitious, credulous cranks. Indulging in superstitious devotions merely adds fuel to the fire of their skepticism and confirms their bias.

Yes, yes, I know that true believers understand that the green scapular is not a talisman. It’s not a Catholic rabbit’s foot or lucky four leaf clover, but it seems that way, and explanations about “it only works when the person prays a lot and has faith” don’t really help because if something needs that much explanation to validate it the problem remains.

Some of the claims about the green scapular are on the level of the old “bury St Joseph in your front yard so your house will sell” story. That’s all well and good, and we’ve all heard stories about the times this trick “worked”. But what you never hear are the stories of when these Catholic magic tricks didn’t work. The believers simply drop the stories that don’t confirm their belief.

Now don’t take this the wrong way. If you want to write me off as a non-believer because I question the efficacy of the green scapular go ahead, but here’s the proper Catholic teaching about the green scapular and all sacramentals: rosaries, blessed candles, St Benedict medals, the miraculous medal, relics, icons and whatever else:

1674 Besides sacramental liturgy and sacramentals, catechesis must take into account the forms of piety and popular devotions among the faithful. the religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the stations of the cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc.

1675 These expressions of piety extend the liturgical life of the Church, but do not replace it. They “should be so drawn up that they harmonize with the liturgical seasons, accord with the sacred liturgy, are in some way derived from it and lead the people to it, since in fact the liturgy by its very nature is far superior to any of them.”

1676 Pastoral discernment is needed to sustain and support popular piety and, if necessary, to purify and correct the religious sense which underlies these devotions so that the faithful may advance in knowledge of the mystery of Christ. Their exercise is subject to the care and judgment of the bishops and to the general norms of the Church.

In other words, sacramentals like the green scapular are good, but can be misunderstood and abused. Their proper purpose is to draw people closer to the liturgical and salvific life of the church. through prayer and immersion in the life of Christ.

So my advice is this: see the sacramentals as aids to prayer and closer communion with the Lord. When I bless a rosary, for example, I say “May this rosary be a chain which binds the user to a more intimate union with they mysteries of salvation.” When blessed properly the sacramentals are set apart for a particular spiritual purpose. That’s why we also bless the items used for sacred worship–the vestments, the altar, the chalice and paten.

So I am not opposed to the use of sacramentals. I am opposed to the superstitious use of sacramentals that so many Catholics seem disposed to.

To learn more about the green scapular devotion go here.