Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.
A Social Scientist’s Reflections on Ash Wednesday and Lent
The Catholic Church probably began to understand the motivational power of visible identity more than a 1,000 years ago (i.e., when record of many Lenten practices are noted in Europe). Today, nearly half of adult Catholics will receive ashes on their forehead (46%) according to CARA surveys. This is likely the third highest day for Mass attendance and it is not even a day of obligation (although some receive ashes outside of Mass as in the 2016 photo on Boston Common above). More than six in ten will not eat meat on Fridays during Lent (62%). There are few things, other than going to Mass at Christmas (about 68% attending… fewer, 52%, attend at Easter) that so many Catholics in the U.S. do together than abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. Why? Because during Lent, in many ways, Catholics have opportunities to wear their religious identity. This contributes to their sense of belonging, where many other aspects of their faith may call more on their obligation to believe. On Ash Wednesday, your religious identity and sense of belonging is worn on your head. On Fridays, these are on your plate (and then on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram). Of course, this is just one aspect of the season but it is important in the broader explanation of why U.S. Catholics become most active in their faith during this time of year.
When people have an opportunity to wear their identities (and possibly feel guilt for not doing so), they will do so in large numbers. This is also now evident in voter turnout numbers (the topic of my dissertation). Sixty percent of eligible voters cast a ballot in 2016. Undoubtedly, some had extra motivation to do so to get the sticker that visibly indicated they voted. Perhaps later they used it for free food and coffee. Rational choice economists assume the "costs" of voting are small—about $10 or $15 (travel, time, and information costs). The value of the sticker indicating you voted, along with potential freebies, I believe help solve "the paradox of voting" (i.e., costs of voting in large elections exceeds benefits—your vote counts but doesn't “matter” because no large electorate election is likely to come down to one vote and if it ever did, recounts or the courts would likely be the deciding factor).
At the same time, research has also revealed that creating opportunities to wear social identities can also have negative consequences. Social psychology has repeatedly found in experiments that similar people who are randomly divided into competing groups by things as trivial as eye color, group names, or role play can create in-group/out-group prejudice and discrimination very quickly and substantially. This is the negative side of membership and belonging to a group. Certainly many Catholics and other Protestants who observe Ash Wednesday become more physically distinct than others do for a day. Over the years, some Catholics and Protestants have reported incidents of possible workplace discrimination on Ash Wednesday.
We often choose to wear other kinds of labels on clothing. Why do people purchase products with specific visual labels rather than generic t-shirts, jeans, shoes, or bags? Part of the explanation is that they do so, in part, to promote an image to others as a component of their social identity. The things we wear can reflect our status or that we prefer a specific lifestyle or role. People will pay much more for a labeled item than one of a similar quality without a label. The identity provided by the label seems to really matter.
This status aspect of visible identity could also be considered a negative—especially when applied to Lenten practices. Ashes on the forehead were never meant to become part of a prideful selfie (they are an acknowledgement of our own mortality). Pictures of plates full of fried seafood and tartar sauce don’t really embrace the spirit of abstinence either. In theory, one might use some of the money saved from eating fish or vegetarian to donate to the poor. However, these days, a takeout salad or a plate full of fried shrimp and chips may be more expensive than the steak a Catholic could prepare for themselves some other day of the week. When the fat and calorie count of you Friday dinner during Lent exceeds what you might otherwise eat (and you take a picture of it and post it online) there might be a cultural disconnect from the traditions of Lent. At the same time, if this makes Catholics more likely to be active in their faith, perhaps it might best be tolerated or even embraced.
Outside of Lent, there are certainly other days and ways where Catholics could choose to “wear their faith.” Yet, CARA surveys indicate that only about a third regularly wear a crucifix or cross (32%) and even fewer wear a religious medal or pin of a saint or angel (29%), or a scapular (9%). Nearly a quarter regularly carry a rosary (23%) and one in five carries prayer cards or coins (20%). Why do so few Catholics do these things? What makes the ashes and the Friday foods during Lent so much more a part of Catholics’ devotional practices? Perhaps it is the seasonality of it all. If Catholics received ashes at every Mass, it would just become part of the routine of worship.
Social scientists have much to learn about human behavior from what Catholics and other Christians do on this day and those ahead during this season. For a social scientist who studies religion, it is one of the most fascinating. As a Catholic, even more so because it marks the beginning of the most energetic season of activity for the Church—a time of reflection, penance, prayer, and devotion.
Images courtesy of: The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, Churl Han, Omer Unlu, vintspiration, elycefeliz, and David Galalis.
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