So, what do sociological data tell us about how the mandatum is practiced in the US? What percentage of parishes (or dioceses) allow women’s feet to be washed as part of their Holy Thursday service? What types of parishes are more (or less) likely to do so? Does engaging in this (yearly) practice of footwashing have a measurable impact on a parishioner’s capacity to empathize with and/or serve others?
The answer to all of these questions and more is: I don’t know. The ugly fact is that I know of no data exploring footwashing practices in U.S. Catholic parishes.
OK, so the title of my post is a bit misleading, because my point is actually to highlight how little we (social scientists) know about parish practices, such as the mandatum. Or even about much more common practices such as receiving the Eucharist, confession or other sacraments, and devotions. (The two practices that most commonly receive attention are mass attendance and prayer, but even these are investigated in rather thin terms.) Indeed, there is much too little systematic research exploring the contours of Catholic parish life within Sociology. This is a lacuna within Sociology that needs to be filled.
I and other sociologists are discussing how we might elevate parish life as a field of investigation. In order to accomplish this task, I think it is useful to mark out the boundaries of social science data as they currently exist. For instance, it turns out that social scientists study Catholic opinions much more than we do actual practices. Why? Because opinion surveys are commonly conducted and are often made available for secondary data analysis by other researchers.
So, for example, I can say more about U.S. Catholics’ attitudes regarding women altar servers than I can about actual practices. This is because a 2005 Gallup poll found that 92.7% of U.S. Catholics supported women as altar servers (with 7% opposing and 0.3% not sure), which is only slightly higher than 13 years before when (in 1992) Gallup asked the same question and found that 87.1% of Catholics supported women as altar servers (with 10% opposing and 3% unsure). However, I cannot tell you what percent of U.S. parishes utilize female altar servers today. Or in 2005 or 1992. I have to go all the way back to 1983 to find the only large scale study of parishes that I know of that allowed for an examination of this question . It is the 1983 Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life. In that data set, we find that 10% of parishes (12 out of 117) in the study were observed to have a woman in the role of altar server.
The mini-controversy (circulating on the blogosphere) surrounding Pope Francis washing the feet of women and non-Christians provided people a chance to learn more about the intricacies of canon law, but I wish it also provided a chance for social scientists to talk about how particular Catholic rituals do (or do not) capacitate people to live full Christian lives. But until we systematically gather the social scientific data necessary to answer these questions, we are left with misleading titles to posts that at most tell us about Catholic opinion, rather than parish practices.