What do data tell us about feetwashing at Catholic Parishes?

Question_mark_3dSo, 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.

4 thoughts on “What do data tell us about feetwashing at Catholic Parishes?

  1. Officially a priest or bishop can’t change the liturgical norm, so in a sense no parishes or dioceses can permit women’s feet being washed because of the way that liturgical law works. That’s one of those things where unless we know the juridical situation behind it we can’t really ask informed questions. As a professor of mine said once, “People don’t know what Rome means when Rome uses words.”
    That said, it would be fascinating to look at questions like Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion and Altar Servers asking not only how many women serve in these ministries currently, but also how that has changed over the years, have we gone from none to a few or many, have we gone from many to none?

    • Stephen,

      To clarify, while it is true that parishes and dioceses cannot do the permitting, they can receive such permission. Below I provide a link to a canon law article that discusses the issue (and I provide what I see as the relevant passage).


      “It is common knowledge that permissions have been granted to individual bishops to permit women to have their feet washed. Under canon law, such variations do not constitute a change in universal norms nor do they provide others a precedent upon which to adopt practices contrary to law (see 1983 CIC 16 § 3). Still, such exceptions inevitably make people wonder why something like this is illicit in one diocese yet permissible in another. Moreover, Rome’s practice of granting such permissions privately makes it difficult to know the level of authority involved in making the exception and to refute rumors that others were granted.”

      I’d also point out that for women altar servers during the 1980s, canon law issues also arose (and permissions also varied in different locales). It is because of these parallels that I chose it as an example. Regardless, as a sociologist a good start is to observe what is actually occurring in parishes–I have personally observed (though not in any systematic way) that different parishes engage in very different Holy Thursday practices. Engaging in a systematic study of these would not be easily accomplished, but it certainly could be done and, I daresay, would be useful to know.

      Not sure if we are disagreeing on this, based on your statement. Hopefully, my response is clear, Brian

  2. Brian, great piece. I completely agree that we need to understand Catholic PRACTICES much more than we presently do, including foot washing. Whether washing women’s feet is allowed or not by canon law and whether or not there are permissions for it under certain pastoral conditions (good things to know of course), it is important to collect such data. We just don’t know. It would be interesting to know, if it were banned, how many still do it. If some do, why? We simply need more sociologists attending liturgical services and taking note of what actually occurs. Perhaps we could begin by some simple observations about the number of female altar servers, how many receive both bread and wine, how many men and women are extraordinary ministers of the eucharist, how many men and women get their feet washed, how many actually SING, how many pick up a hymnal, etc etc. I would love to be part of such research so count me in if I can help in any way. How many, after receiving holy communion, delve into private prayer or continue singing or do both? Also, communion to the sick – how many laity to that and what is their gender and age and racial make-up. I actually wrote a piece on this in the journal ANTIPHON back in the nineties that might be of some interest. Anyway, great piece Brian.

  3. It’s been interesting to see some of the reactions that people have had to Pope Francis washing the feet of women and non-Catholics. For me, the controversy has caused me to reflect on how both journalists and sociologists try to label and describe various types of Catholics. In reading some blog posts and articles about the controversy I’ve noticed that writers have used different descriptors to try to distinguish the type of Catholic who was not happy with what the pope did. For example, I’ve seen “traditionalist,” “conservative,” and “right-wing” used, sometimes interchangeably. However, I’d argue that there is a difference between a “traditionalist” Catholic and a “conservative” Catholic, and the two don’t always overlap. Many of those who could be called “conservative” seemed to have no issue with what Francis did, and probably didn’t even know that washing women’s feet could be controversial. I agree with you in wishing that social scientists had better data on parish practices. I also wish that both journalists and sociologists better distinguished between the types of Catholics they were talking about.