ciir: a radiCAL LOSS
An on-line history of Progressio, formerly the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR), was published a week or so ago. Do have a look: https://www.progressio.org.uk/what/legacy-publication-organisations-life-and-work Open hyperlink and click on A Record of Change in a Changing World.
When Progressio closed two years ago I wrote a valedictory piece - see below. I hope it may encourage you to dip into the online CIIR history put together by Jon Barnes, a former regional manager for Latin America and the Caribbean. It tries to capture a dimension of Catholicism during and after the Cold War.
A Radical Loss
Writing the obituary for an organisation, rather than a person, is a daunting task. That might be because the seventy-six years that span the life of The Sword of the Spirit, from which the Catholic Institute for International Relations (CIIR) budded off in the mid-1960s, finally to be renamed Progressio, merit a proper contextual history. Or it might be because I worked there for twenty of those years, fifteen of them as general secretary six on the southern Africa desk; that puts a strain on my objectivity. For both reasons important people, programmes, events may get left out, and other characteristics, perhaps less acknowledged, emphasised.
Last things first: Progressio's demise, sixteen years after I left, is sadly mundane. No great dramas. It ran out of money. Some £2 million of its £5 million plus budget came from a partnership with the UK Ministry of International Development (DfID), and this ended.
It was ever so. I remember trying to widen the donor base, knocking on bishops' and convent doors, seeking those elusive German Benedictine Abbots with gold bars under their chasubles, trying to convince American Catholic millionaires that they didn't really want to endow a chair in Mediaeval Studies, or a chapel, but contribute to Africans having a decent life. But most of the Sisters had their elderly to care for - some helped - only one or two bishops got out their cheque books as I came in the door - bless them – and I never found those rich Abbots hiding in the Teutonic mists and forests. My “elevator-pitch” with American Catholic millionaires didn't get me past the first floor. Changing the name to Progressio to widen donor appeal in 2006 didn't work. I suspect those imagined secular supporters thought Progressio was an Italian football team.
But enough of the petty humiliations of fund-raising in competition with the well-oiled machines of CAFOD and VSO which, in some ways, occupied the same charitable terrain. CIIR was “at the edge” and radical. Under the leadership of the late Mildred Nevile, it built up a substantial reputation for advocacy in southern Africa and Latin America, and for outstanding grass-roots development work in a range of different countries. It was some measure of the times that the most outstanding Catholic woman of her generation, Mildred, never, until her death, received the recognition from the Church that she merited. The State, at least, gave her an MBE which she promptly lost in her car, holding up celebrations as staff scrabbled in the front seat to find it.
What made CIIR different was what made Mildred different. CIIR was deeply imbued with the tradition and spirit of Catholicism, but not inward-looking or “churchy”; it looked outward never fretting for long about episcopal support or what bishops were worried about. Yet a high regard for the work of the organisation was often forthcoming. I used to have a private joke with Cardinal Hume, our patron, whom I visited regularly. I'd greet him and then ask: “has anyone been complaining about us”. He'd pause to think then say “I don't think so”. I'd reply “then we aren't doing our job properly, are we?” Then we'd laugh. Though odd Catholic and non-Catholic members of the Tory back benches were occasionally apoplectic at what we did. That was comforting.
Looking outward meant that CIIR was able to see the UK in the context of a global Church and different cultures and ways of thought as diverse as those of Yemen, Zimbabwe, El Salvador, South Korea, Philippines, and Somaliland, to give a sense of the contrasts. Instead of “little England” there was “big global South”, not the cosmopolitanism of the international bankers but of the barrios and favelas of Latin America and Philippines and the black townships of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. Being part of a global Church was not an academic idea but a lived reality. The CIIR's sending of volunteers to share their skills to strengthen civil society around the world, chosen entirely on professional rather than confessional grounds, meant that for many years CIIR had outstanding representatives in eleven different countries feeding their ideas and experience back into the life of the organisation.
This global feedback coupled with close bonds of friendship forged with workers for justice and development in local Churches, from archbishops to lay workers, could not but shape the implicit theology of the organisation. CIIR became a thoughtful promoter of liberation theology, and its contextual variant in South Africa. Sister Pamela Hussey SHCJ, now 96, with whom I was privileged to share my years in CIIR, said in her book Freedom from Fear that Christian commitment was “redefined, tested, and purified in the crucible of repression”. She was awarded an MBE for her work for human rights in Latin America - which shows how little influence the CIA had with the UK honours committee. We hosted –clandestinely - theologians from around the world who wanted to reflect on the nature of this repression, out of which came the 1989 Damascus Document. My sadness in retrospect is that this reflection did not embrace the comparable martyrdoms of the communist world and eastern bloc. The Cold War divided the Church no less than the world; our focus was the military dictatorships and oligarchies. The Sword of the Spirit, had originally had set the trend doing education work to combat the intellectual flirtation of some Catholics with fascism in the 1940s.
For CIIR, being intellectually colonised by the developing world was no bad thing. It meant that keeping theology, politics and development in separate silos was impossible. This was reflected in everything CIIR attempted. It also kept the organisation “on the edge”. Internally it had to negotiate the differences between a volunteer programme that saw itself as “secular” and an advocacy programme that saw itself, more accurately, as religious. But the secular programme could be seen as an expression of “the option for the poor” and the religious programme worked with liberation movements and, for a while, the South African Communist Party. The latter was as secular as it gets even if it often wanted Archbishop Hurley to preside over funerals of leading members of the African National Congress (ANC). He used to complain to me that on these occasions the red flag somehow always appeared behind him as photographs were being taken.
Whether working with the Rhodesian Justice and Peace Commission or getting the general secretary of the Southern African Council of Churches, Frank Chikane, back across the South African border – he had been forced to “skip” for several months to UK - or smuggling in a de-bugging device for the United Democratic Front, CIIR activity was necessarily borderline. Our partners' lives were at stake. The South African security police poisoned Frank Chikane but he survived. CIIR was borderline only in relation to the less life-threatening world of the UK politics. The organisation also had colleagues there: the late Liberal Peer, Pratap Chitnis, Labour M.P. John Battle, and Lord Chris Patten then a Conservative M.P. was a constructively critical supporter. We even sent Jeremy Corbyn to East Timor to monitor the elections.
CIIR was a feminist organisation. This Catholic feminism was what motivated books such as Life out of Death: the Feminine Spirit in El Salvador by Sister Pamela Hussey and Marigold Best, a Quaker, published in 1997. One of the experiences of accompanying friends through struggles for freedom in the closing years of the Cold War was to see how little the liberation struggles of the time resulted in the situation of women changing however much they had engaged in the struggles. But above all, feminism informed much of the skill-share work. Some of the most outstanding country representatives were women. The projects that volunteers worked in came under, in one way or another, the heading of “women's empowerment”. This covered a range of programmes from masculinity training in Latin America to advocacy training in Zimbabwe. Likewise some of the unseen and unsung heroes in the Church's opposition to apartheid, and against the illegal occupation of Namibia, were women in the Grail.
Looking outward, forgetting yourself, thinking beyond yourself, learning from the other, being at ease on the periphery, at border crossings, I would describe as the spirituality of CIIR (though I don't like the word). It could take you further into the thick of things than your emotional resilience was ready for, but I think there was something about this experience that took you in the right direction, moving towards a glimpse into the meaning of discipleship.
There was most poignantly in the last decade, some sharing in the Poor's perennial sense of betrayal. I often think of how the CIIR office was a venue for the leading players in the Zimbabwe Patriotic Front and how betrayed the Zimbabwe people are today by what power did to this political elite. I also remember going off to the EU to negotiate funding to the South African Churches with the great Afrikaaner Dutch Reformed Church opponent of apartheid, Beyers Naude.
There were meetings with Thabo Mbeki, then leader of the ANC in London pubs also creating a sense of hope and common endeavour. There were the friends who were tortured because of their active opposition to the apartheid regime, and how they and the people of South Africa have been betrayed by the political party they sacrificed so much for, and then had to suffer a corrupt thug, Jacob Zuma, as the President of their nation. I am sure colleagues who worked in Latin America and in programmes in Yemen, destroyed by war, or Latin America destroyed by drugs cartels, will have experienced similar thoughts and sadness. These are memories that, with hindsight and without mercy, correct visions of what is possible with our unredeemed humanity, with a politics that is about power and not about compassion and the powerlessness of the Cross; these are memories that humble and should not and cannot be air-brushed out.
In short CIIR was a Cold War baby, living in the interstices of a divided Church and a divided world, getting its hands dirty. The geopolitical change when the Cold War ended in 1991 nearly upended the organisation. It was a struggle to “redefine, test and purify” its mission in the new context. Nobody was any longer interested in funding work in Namibia or South Africa anymore and Latin America slipped off the map at DfID. We focussed for a while on truth and reconciliation commissions. There was continuing work to be done with returning Namibian, Zimbabwean and South African refugees. We began a new programme on the Church's role in countering the drugs trade. My successor retained the grossly underfunded advocacy theme by the overseas programmes training our partners in advocacy, and, of course, the CIIR's gender work continued. Her successor began a new programme with VSO of working exposure trips for young people.
Much of the present work will be handed over to other organisations. Just as CIIR went under, there is a certain irony in having the Latin American Pope we could have done with twenty years ago, clear about the implications of the option to the Poor, and who could answer honestly that, yes, the Curia were complaining about him. I think many radical Catholics feel about Pope Francis a little like Afro-Americans felt about Obama: we made it but not much has changed. The radical vision of Catholicism, rather than its conservative or liberal version, remains a vision - with a few wonderful exceptions.
I would like to think that CIIR will be seen historically in the same category as the Christian Institute in South Africa: radical, at times distinctly “edgey”, ready to take risks for those in the thick of it, stumbling into Grace. But also producing world class analysis of development, political analysis of fast-moving revolutionary change, and good theology. Its Overseas Programme changed innumerable lives. I can hear Mildred Nevile saying without fuss: “It had its day. Something else will take its place”. I really hope so.
See Doctrine & Life Dominican Publications, Dublin, November 2016
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