Following “The Pope’s Children”, his bestselling survey of the generation born after the visit of Pope John Paul II to Ireland in September 1979, David McWilliams presented a three-part television series “Searching for the Pope’s Children”.
I interviewed David yesterday, for local radio. Given that the interview will be broadcast mostly in the west of the country and that many people don’t listen to religious programmes, here’s a transcript of what he said:
Having watched your three television programmes, I didn’t get a sense that the people you met had any spiritual values. Do the Pope’s Children have a soul?
I don’t think they have any particular spiritual values in the old fashioned sense, but nor did their parents. It’s the middle aged who are setting the tone for materialism in this country, if you look out the window here in Killiney, the people driving the big cars are not kids, they are dads and mums and golf club members. Ultimately, I don’t think this obsession with materialism is located in a certain demographic, I think it’s almost ubiquitous. I think you have a culture that is not dissimilar from the age of 55 down in Ireland. If you go to the local pub here tonight, you will see the aspirations of the middle aged are setting the tone for the younger generation. I think there is very little spirituality anywhere in the country, no matter what age you are talking about.
If there is no spirituality, did you discern values? What sort of values do people live by?
I would argue strongly that the young have much more globalised environmental values than the middle aged, if you look at the books they are buying and reading. They are buying books like “No Logo”; they have a sense of branding, they have a sense of some sort of internationalist movement, whereas their parents don’t. Their parents are voting Fine Gael/Fianna Fail once every four years in a spectator democracy and thereafter are buying second houses in Bulgaria.
This is the second generation that has changed?
I think what is interesting in Ireland is that there is a narrative that there is some uniquely unusual hedonistic individualistic group of people in their twenties and that they are quite different to their parents who might be in their late 40s, early 50s. There is no evidence of that, what you have is a blurring of the generation gap. Many of the 1970s liberals who fought the “good fight”, who would be the parents of the Pope’s Children, ticked a couple of boxes on divorce and the liberal agenda and then went away and bought SUVs.
The people you talked to, what aspirations have they? Apart from the material things, to what extent do community and other things matter?
They all wanted families. They all wanted nice places to live. They all wanted to look after their children. They had very similar aspirations to their parents. My generation is wedged in between these two.
It struck me that in terms of religious values they are probably the first of the post-religious era in Ireland, an almost post-Christian era, which makes Christians very interesting because Christians are the one who are fighting a fight that might look outdated, but might be a futuristic battle. That is the society we live in. Europe, in contrast with the United States, is an atheist continent, and these are children of Europe.
The value system is ad hoc, people make up things as they go along?
Yes, it’s a la carte. It’s a la carte morality, which I would agree with. You have two ways to live your life: You have rules or discretion. As long as your discretion is based on a certain general view of what’s right and wrong, and I believe they have that, then jettisoning the rather strict rules that have governed this country over the last hundred years isn’t probably a bad thing. If you look at what has happened in terms of violence in this society, it’s not the people I portrayed who are perpetrating violence. They seem to be rather well behaved people.
Do they have absolutes? Are there certain values they would adhere to at all costs?
I’m not sure. Think about the changes this younger generation have had to live through. They have had to shoulder enormous burdens financially with respect to mortgages, which their parents didn’t have. They have had to adapt and change with a society that is absorbing more immigrants and strangers than any society in Europe has ever done. Are we seeing outbreaks of racism? No, we’re not. Are we seeing some sort of revolutionary movement? No, we’re not. What you have, I think, are a reasonably heroic bunch; very tolerant, having a good time, being reasonably pleasant and behaving rather well.
The programmes, from a Church perspective, are probably fairly bleak.
Why do you say they are bleak?
Because the conventions and the institutions the Church attaches itself to seem to play very little part in the lives of most of the people you seem to encounter.
I presume that’s the reality. You guys are a bunch of revolutionaries now.
Are you suggesting that the Church has to reinvent itself, go back to first principles?
Absolutely. You are in the market place for ideas. You are selling a lifestyle, so is Nike selling a lifestyle, so is Guinness selling a lifestyle, so are all the big brands. There was a time fifty years ago when you had the monopoly on lifestyle advertising; you now have to compete in the market place. It might sound very apocalyptic for the Church, but there’s no reason why the Church should have a special brand, the Church has to fight its corner.