We tend to forget that all of our thoughts, actions and feelings are culturally conditioned. The values that predominate our secular culture influence all thinking, acting and feeling within that culture.
So a very practical question all Catholics, especially young ones, should be considering these days is: Whose values or which values dominate my thoughts, actions and feelings? Do Catholic values dominate my life?
Culture and its dominant values are transmitted socially, not genetically. Learning is therefore important if a shared way of life (a culture) is to be preserved. Formal education is part, but only part, of the process of enculturation; entertainment, recreation, imitation and observation play a big role.
John Lennon had his head handed to him when he remarked that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. But he did have a point.
Catholics can find themselves caught in a crossfire between the influence of Catholic values and broader cultural forces that are hostile to those Catholic values. Although she did not have Catholics in mind when she wrote the following words, the famed anthropologist Margaret Mead recognized that there are hostile forces at work against the preservation of culture and she posed the problem this way:
“In small societies, children learn by imitating their parents, relatives and neighbors. In our huge society, we use our mass entertainments to instruct our children on how they should express their emotions and what values they should have. … We are showing our youngsters exactly the opposite of what we want them to imitate. We are showing them men who brutally attack others when angry. We show people who murder because of hatred and expediency. We show that love is expressed only by hunger for another’s body and we show them little else.”
The word “show” or “showing” is used by Mead five times in that brief scan of the forces that shape the minds and actions of the young. Obviously, “showtime” — on stage, television, movie screen and, by extension, “radio shows” — is an element to be examined when exploring the question of the formation of values.
In a very real sense, schooltime is in competition with showtime. Catholic schooltime should create a mindset or climate of opinion that is clear on central principles and critical of false values. As fewer Catholics experience Catholic education, the issue of conveying and preserving Catholic culture looms all the larger.
Catholic college students, for example, should be encouraged to ask themselves in the face of magazine and television advertising not, “What does this ad invite me to buy?” but rather, “What does this ad presume me to be?”
Behind the ad stands a value waiting to be confronted by the values that define one’s Catholic culture. The young are indeed caught in a crossfire; without realizing it, they are on a battleground.
All Catholics should be open to change, of course, but only for the better. They should be perceptive enough to avoid being seduced away from their Catholic values and from the thoughts, actions and feelings that their Catholic values might reasonably be expected to foster.
And all of us should want to be sure that those Catholic values are getting through in the first place.
Jesuit Father William J. Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.