The Church and think tanks

10 January 2012

What is it about the Church and think tanks? The Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection caught my attention this year with its innovative use of evidence and religion. But other cases exist where the Church has played an important role in the formation and development of think tanks. In Chile, the Catholic Church helped to set up the first think tanks that appeared after the fall of democracy in 1973. An excerpt from my book:

New types of organisations were needed: The Chilean Institute of Humanistic Studies (ICHEH), supported by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation was set up in 1974. Although initially just a publishing house, ICHEH was established within the Church’s legal framework and hosted by it. ICHEH it self then established the Centre for Socio-Economic Research (CISEC), led by a Jesuit intellectual, Mario Zañatu, to produce reliable data and analysis on topics of national interest. CISEC published regular reports, officially intended to the Bishop’s Conference but of clear general public interest, too.

ICHEH and CISEC were not initially meant to replace the older institutions. They were emergency measures taken by academics, the Church and other intellectuals who, at the time, would have expected things to go back to normal in the medium term. This sense of emergency is reflected in the way the Church, on the back of founding ICHEH a year earlier, set up the Academy of Christian Humanism in 1975 as an institutional umbrella for academic groups cut a drift from traditional institutions. Funded by the Ford Foundation, the Academy grew into six research programmes employing over 300 people (200 researchers). It promoted study circles that stepped in for professional schools. In fact, much of the work of these new think tanks focused around the formation and facilitation of spaces for dialogue and reflection.

In Peru, too, DESCO was set up by proponents of the liberation theology linked to the Catholic Church and CIUP is a think tank hosted by Universidad del Pacifico, a Jesuit University. There are of course, other examples.

Also from my draft book:

Rather than this being an argument in favour of more religious think tanks it illustrates the importance of narratives and ideology.

In discussing three think tanks in Zambia I conclude that:

Evidence, combined with explicit appeals to values and the stories drawn from the Bible more specifically, makes JCTR an interesting case of an ideologically identifiable think tank (but not one that Josef Braml had in mind when he compared think tanks in the United States and Germany). JCTR is able to use the well-known and powerful narrative, as well as the many stories and metaphors, that religion provides to communicate its evidence in a manner that resonates with both specialised and general audiences in Zambia. It is not surprising then that JCTR makes more and better use of the mainstream media as well as social networks (physical, not virtual) to disseminate its messages –for instance with op-eds in The Post.

Unfortunately for them, this is something that [other think tanks] have to develop themselves. Driven by technocratic imperatives (the evidence-based policy mantra that has been adopted by the international development community) and short-term contracts to deliver projects devised by its funders, [they], enjoy very little freedom to develop cohesive or complete narratives of their own. JCTR has a ready-made one.