Friday, January 26, 2007

The (Last) Great Generation

My parents were part of what Tom Brokaw, in his book by that name, called the greatest generation. Like so many others, my father was killed in Europe's last great effort to resist a murderous and heartless tyranny. My mother never took her wedding ring off, worked as a secretary at the Catholic parish where I attended grammar school, and was a daily communicant. The greatness was disguised in the most ordinary of forms, but it stands out against the backdrop of what happened subsequently, when we were inundated by the moral and cultural tsunami that washed up in the late 1960s. Unlike a literal tsunami, the moral one left most of the physical structures in place. In that sense it was more like a neutron bomb, which is reputed to kill all living things while leaving the physical infrastructure standing.

These things were brought to mind this morning by the first reading in today's Mass, from the introduction of St. Paul's second letter to Timothy, in which he wrote to Timothy:
... I recall your sincere faith
that first lived in your grandmother Lois
and in your mother Eunice
and that I am confident lives also in you.
Here is a genealogy of faith that has been the greatest of all sources of Christian devotion and the incalculable blessings that accompany it. William Butler Yeats may have slightly overstated matters when he said that no one can write poetry except in the language in which he first spoke the familiar form of the word for mother, and the religious corollary is likewise only one of the ways Christian faith is transmitted. There are countless Christians who came to their faith in adult life without the benefit of a Christian upbringing. Nevertheless, the most natural and beautiful way to receive the gift of faith is, so to speak, at our mother's breast or on our mother's knee. I say, "so to speak," because, as a father, I am keenly aware of the father's role in the transmission of faith, a role that is especially important today when fatherlessness -- both literal and metaphorical -- is such a conspicuous cultural reality.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, however, the tsunami rolled across the heartland from both coasts. What was vaguely called patriarchy was most definitely out, something that served to obscure the fact that the great tragedy of that period was fatherlessness. On the other hand, there was a great wave of nostalgia for matriarchy. All this, of course, was taking place in the rarefied atmosphere ideological fashion. Back on earth, what was actually and conspicuously happening was the radical renunciation of both paternal and maternal responsibilities, that is to say, the responsibilities of adulthood.

In his The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, Dinesh d'Souza makes a reference to Brokaw's book that is apposite.
Some years ago I read Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation, which describes the virtues of the World War II generation. I asked myself whether this was truly the “greatest” generation. Was it greater than the generation of the American founding? Greater than the civil war generation? I don’t think so. The significant thing about the World War II generation was that it was the last generation. Last in what way? It was the last generation to embrace an external code of traditional morality. Indeed this generation’s great failure was that it was unable to inculcate this moral code in its children.
I want to return to d'Souza's argument in a subsequent post. In the meantime, I offer the comment above in the hope that it will provide others of my generation what it provided me: an occasion for the examination of conscience, on one hand, and a reminder, on the other, of the great debt I owe to those who were for me what Lois and Eunice were for Timothy.

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