The Tabernacle in Catholic Parishes

One of the more contentious issues that has been under debate since Vatican II concerns the location of the tabernacle in local parishes.  Indeed, some view this issue as a decisive aspect of the spiritual vitality of the faithful—that the tabernacle location is somehow directly linked to one’s potential for spiritual participation in his or her faith.

There are four basic alternatives for locating the tabernacle: 1) in the sanctuary usually somewhere behind the altar, 2) out of the sanctuary and at the side of the nave, 3) out of the sanctuary in a separate room, 4) out of the nave in a completely separate chapel.


We collected data from all parishes in the Archdiocese of Detroit concerning tabernacle location, and classified the data in two ways.  First, we coded the location of the tabernacle as either inside (the first alternative) or outside the sanctuary (one of the other three alternatives.  Second, we coded the location of the parish: as city (Detroit and Pontiac) or suburban.

Overall, there are slightly more parishes with their tabernacle location in the sanctuary rather than out of it (54.3% vs 45.7%).  However, the distribution of tabernacle location appears to be a function of parish location.  That is, 80% of the city parishes compared to only 43.5% of suburban parishes locate their tabernacles inside the sanctuary, and proportionately over twice as many suburban as city parishes locate their tabernacles outside the sanctuary.

The divergences between city and suburban parishes appear to be driven by divergences in the degree of professionalism of parish staff which itself is likely driven by degree of parish affluence.  In particular, we believe that the underlying process accounting for the patterns displayed in our data pertains to the degree of influence that trained liturgists have on parish and diocesan decision makers (see McCallion and Maines, 1999, “The Liturgical Social Movement in the Vatican II Catholic Church,” in Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, Vol 21, pages 125-149 – JAI Press Inc.).  Suburban parishes tend to be able to hire more trained professionals on their staff, and given recent trends concerning the liturgical training of such professionals, it seems that suburban parishes tend to have more liturgists on their staff.  Moreover, it is well documented that trained liturgists have an overwhelming preference for locating the tabernacle outside the sanctuary on the grounds that such locations facilitate the full active participation of the faithful (see McCallion, 2000, “Lay and Professional Views on Tabernacle Location in Catholic Parishes,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography,
vol. 29, No. 6, pp 717-746).  While not all church professionals hold this position, let alone the vast majority of the laity, this theological interpretation is intrinsic to the liturgical social movement and thus has the force and backing that comes with such movements.

So what if the tabernacle is relocated?  What is at stake?  From a Durkheimian perspective, it would be more accurate to say that what is at stake is a way of embodying Catholicism.  If the tabernacle is removed, then genuflecting, making the sign of the cross, and praying in front of the tabernacle will diminish and with them a bodily way of knowing what it means to be Catholic.  Even though the tabernacle is still present (in another room—chapel) it will not be regularly seen and encountered and therefore acted toward by the average person in the pew who only attends church once a week.

What is sacred for Durkheim is what humans act toward, what they bodily do and practice, not fundamentally what they believe “toward” or believe they “practice.”  Many Catholics believe Christ is present in the tabernacle, but the belief interacts with, and perhaps is even preceded by, the behavior of acting toward the tabernacle via genuflections, signs of the cross, and prayers—bodily expressions that symbolize that they believe—whether they do or not.  It is these embodied actions that imbue the tabernacle with sacredness.

I think these controversies will persist and emotions will run high because the tabernacle is a direct extension of the Mass in that it is the place where the Body of Christ, communion, is reserved, and the Mass or celebration of the Eucharist is the fundamental Catholic ritual expressing Catholic identity.  Accordingly, it is easy to comprehend how parishioners have come to identify deeply with the tabernacle even though their encounter with it may be brief and only once a week.  The tabernacle is related deeply to the central Catholic ritual act, and it provides the ordinary Catholic a repertoire of religious behavior, a means to act toward, to bodily do something, to practice with one’s body ritual gestures that instill physical and emotional feelings that communicate to them that a worshipful act has been accomplished and, moreover, that these social acts make them feel as though they belong to the Catholic church because they know bodily what to do when they encounter it.  What is at stake, therefore, with respect to the presence or absence of the tabernacle is a bundle of ritual practices that strike at the heart of Catholic identity.

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