In reading through the forums lately, I’ve noticed questions more about personal behavior in church (such as nursing babies, talking on the phone, cutting in line for the confessional) than about the rules for the Mass or other aspects of Church life. The personal behavior questions remind me more of questions posed to an etiquette expert, and so I was wondering if there is such a thing as Catholic etiquette. If so, where do you go to get answers to those kind of questions?
All societies and segments of society within a larger society have an etiquette particular to them (although the rules of segments within a society do overlap in some ways with the larger society). That is because the definition of etiquette is merely “rules governing socially acceptable behavior” (source).
The etiquette that the Church specifically outlines are the rules governing the celebration of the Mass and the sacraments. Although not usually considered such, the liturgical rubrics are a form of etiquette, and because of the importance of the right celebration of the Mass and the sacraments, the Church is careful to outline those rules in documents like the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Other codes of behavior that are important to the doctrinal and moral life of the Church are codified in documents like the Code of Canon Law.
But there is a limit to what the Church is able to codify, particularly when some areas of behavior are governed by cultural expectations and social norms. So, some things like nursing babies and using cell phones in church are governed not by the Church but by the prevailing etiquette of the local culture. For example, differing standards of modesty between African and European societies (and those societies they influence) might mean that the public nursing of infants is accepted in one culture and frowned upon in another. Or, as another example, a society that has no cell phones has no need of rules governing the use of cell phones in church. But a society that does have cell phones needs such rules.
Where the Church has not spoken on an issue, the prevailing etiquette of the society should take precedence. The question, of course, becomes which expert do you listen to. If we go back to the public breastfeeding example, you’ll find etiquette experts all over the map on that one. In the spirit of G. K. Chesterton’s dictum to not take down a fence until you know why it was built in the first place, I can only recommend giving precedence to the etiquette experts who show familiarity with and respect for the traditions and traditional behavior of the prevailing culture.
Catholic Etiquette by Kay Lynn Isca
American Catholic Etiquette by Kay Toy Fenner
Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior by Judith Martin