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Secular culture, ice cream and institutional identity

January 30, 2015
Father John Piderit, SJ

Individual institutions, whether public or private, exist within the larger framework of public or secular culture. Clubs, schools, business corporations, banks, hospitals, stores, churches, and dioceses – all these operate in the broad secular culture.

Culture is just the assembly of common or widely shared understandings about how society works and how human beings best operate in society. What families do on Sundays, what role sports play in a child’s growth and development, what counts as a palatial home, what clothes one should wear to a funeral, what constitutes a treat for a family, etc. As is evident from these examples, “shared understandings” include hopes, goals, and what counts as honorable performance and success.

“Shared understandings” does not mean that a very high percentage of people have the same understandings about the way the world works or the way people should comport themselves in the world. There will always be individuals or groups with distinctly different views from the dominant culture. The Amish in Pennsylvania and Ohio reject much of modern secular culture and adhere to their own ways. In addition, many Asian groups living in the United States have decidedly different perspectives on authority. In particular, families in these groups often engender in their children high respect for teachers in the classroom. These families not only tell their children always to obey the teacher but also persuade their children to behave that way.

So, secular culture is the dominant culture, but there are groups – large and small – that distance themselves from various aspects of secular culture. One of those groups ought to be Christians and Catholics in particular. This is especially true in modern society since there are so many features of modern society that are contrary to Christian convictions.

One of the attractive features of modern American society is that, although the dominant culture has a significant impact on many people and families, people are free to choose the group with which they wish to associate. Parents often select groups (or avoid groups) because they have particular ways in which they choose to raise their children and lead their lives. Frequently, smaller interest or ethnic groups form institutions that allow them to pursue common goals or foster common activities among parents and children. We have Catholic schools and parishes, but many ethnic groups also have financial institutions that specialize in providing services to particular groups; there are social clubs, professional societies for doctors and lawyers, specialty stores, and many other institutions that offer services that appeal to many people. While many people may find them attractive, the institutions can be quite small, with only a few hundred people or a few thousand people associated with it.

Most institutions change over time. They can do this in an intentional way if they amend their charter or they formally announce some new policy. But the change may also occur gradually and without fanfare. Because people in smaller institutions are part of the larger secular culture that has an impact on people, institutions may change simply because secular culture gradually induces behavioral changes in people belonging to institutions. That is, changes occur in secular society – for example, everyone now uses cellphones – and that impacts the way people in a particular institution interact.

Sometimes it is difficult to figure out whether the change occurred primarily because of secular culture or because of the institution. Consider an example involving ice-cream shops. Over the past 30 or 40 years, most ice-cream shops offer a great array of toppings for ice cream. In addition, some offer gelato, cookies, brownies and other sweet things. Suppose a particular small chain of ice-cream shops never went the route of offering more variety. They simply continued to offer excellent ice cream, with no toppings or other goodies. Because they now perceive people once again are appreciating excellent ice cream, they choose a new name for their chain, “Nothing But Ice Cream.”

When people hear about “Nothing But Ice Cream” stores, they may think this is a wonderful innovation. In fact, this small chain of ice cream stores has only changed its name; otherwise it remains the same as it has been for the past 40 years. It is still offering substantially the same products it has always offered. The reason people think the approach is new is because the broader offerings in most other ice cream shops changed. This chain stuck to its original vision and now it is taking advantage of the “new way” secular society views ice cream: A lot of people just want good ice cream.

Although every analogy limps, something similar has happened in the dynamic between secular culture and Catholic schools. Secular culture has changed dramatically. What until five or 10 years ago were considered “shared understandings” in secular culture have been reversed. A shared understanding used to be that a family consisted of a mother and father. That has now changed. Another common understanding used to be that most Catholics should attend Mass on Sunday. Now only a quarter of Catholics attend Mass on Sunday.

It is important to make clear that our Catholic institutions – especially our Catholic schools – have not changed. Rather, they still teach and proclaim traditional Catholic doctrine. However, there have been major changes in secular society. In order to provide guidance to parents and teachers, the church has to make clear that Catholic schools have not adjusted their beliefs to secular culture. They have not changed; they still teach what the church teaches.

Jesuit Father Piderit is vicar for administration/moderator of the curia for the Archdiocese of San Francisco.

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