A Force for Peace

Tufts alum Sean Callahan, head of Catholic Relief Services, describes how religion aids humanitarian efforts
Sean Callahan at Tufts
Being with a religious group sometimes helps convey to others, said Sean Callahan, that his motives are honorable and that he is “not here just for my own good, but for the common good.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
November 6, 2017

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Religion can be a powerful convening force, bringing people together to combat poverty and other social ills, said Sean Callahan, A82, F88, A21P, in his keynote speech at the 2017 Religion, Law & Diplomacy Conference at the Fletcher School on November 3. “If we’re trying to change the world, we should harness this power” to direct people’s energy and talents, said Callahan, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, an international humanitarian agency with a budget that approaches $1 billion.

While he acknowledged that religious communities aren’t always “doing the right thing” on issues such as the rights of women and marginalized groups, Callahan said that religion cannot and should not be ignored in humanitarian, business, and diplomatic efforts around the globe. “There’s no way you can keep it out.”

In his own experience, he said, building trust has been essential to supporting change around the world, and being true to one’s values while respecting the human dignity and culture of others helps produce that trust. For example, when he first started working in Afghanistan, he was concerned that his agency’s in-country staff of 300, who were all local, might be targeted for violent attacks because the word “Catholic” is in the agency’s name. A staff member assured him that this would not be the case, saying “You’re people of the book”—a Muslim term for Christians and Jews. Being with a religious group, Callahan noted, sometimes helps convey that his motives are honorable and that he is “not here just for my own good, but for the common good.”

During the Ebola crisis in Guinea, religious leaders were able to assist in defusing tensions and help end the outbreak because they had the trust of local residents, Callahan said. He described how the government turned to religious communities for help, and they stepped in to provide safe and dignified burials, respecting local traditions but temporarily adjusting them to stop transmission of the virus. “If you want behavior change, what do you need? Trust,” he said.

Callahan suggested that a similarly respectful approach could help shift restrictive gender roles and other traditions that may not be helpful or healthy. He told the story of a woman in India who counseled pregnant women. Her husband used to beat her when she didn’t get home in time for dinner, Callahan said, but as her status rose in the community and she was able to buy a motorbike for her work, the husband began to help prepare meals.

In response to questions about how religion can divide communities rather than bring them together, Callahan said that religious literacy is key, so that people can understand which actions reflect the core teachings of a religion and which are a misinterpretation that “has nothing to do with the religion.” He said it was important in the U.S. context not to demonize Muslims or call terrorists “Islamic,” which can increase paranoia and create enemies.

Before Callahan delivered his speech, Fletcher School Dean James Stavridis, F83, F84, presented him with the Dean’s Medal, which is awarded in recognition of significant achievement in global leadership and the promotion of peace, prosperity, and justice in the world. “His career has truly been extraordinary,” said Stavridis, referring to Callahan’s three decades with Catholic Relief Services. The dean called Callahan “an exemplar of what the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy stands for.”

The conference, entitled Approaching Religious Literacy in International Affairs, was the third annual conference organized by the Fletcher School’s Initiative on Religion, Law & Diplomacy. It was partially supported by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to promote religious literacy in higher education. The Initiative on Religion, Law & Diplomacy, launched in 2015 to challenge the assumption that religion should be studied only in relation to counter terrorism and violent extremism, aims to showcase the ways that religion is pertinent to global politics and international relations, and to increase religious literacy.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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