Social Customs and Demographic Change: The Case of Godparenthood in Catholic Europe


  • Acknowledgments: We thank participants at seminars in Bocconi, at the EAPS 2010 annual conference, and at the Giornate di Studio sulla Popolazione 2011 for many helpful comments. The Ufficio Centale di Statistica della Chiesa provided data on baptisms from the Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae. We also thank all the colleagues and research assistants who, at Bocconi University and at a number of universities in France, provided help in completing the survey on godparenthood. The research leading to this article has received support from the project Consequences of Demographic Change (CODEC), funded by the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) ERC Grant agreement No. 201194

Alfani Guido, Bocconi University–PAM, Via Roentgen 1, Milan 20136 Italy. E-mail:


This article analyzes social norms regulating the selection of godparents in Italy and France. Based on Vatican statistics and European Values Study responses, the vast majority of children in Catholic Europe are baptized and birth rituals are considered important even by nonbelievers. Moreover, the dominant custom of selecting godparents from among kinsmen is a recent development, based on historical data. A new survey about the selection of godparents in Italy and France, conducted for this study, shows that godparents are chosen not for religious, but for social-relational reasons. Selection of kinsmen is the norm, with uncles and aunts being the majority choice. For Italy, choice determinants are explored by means of multinomial regressions. The results are contrasted with demographic change to show that in lowest-low fertility countries current godparenthood models are bound to disappear.