The Landscape of Faith-Based Humanitarian Aid Reflects a World in Flux

By Herlinger, Chris | National Catholic Reporter, June 7, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Landscape of Faith-Based Humanitarian Aid Reflects a World in Flux


Herlinger, Chris, National Catholic Reporter


NEW YORK * It was a cold, rough and desperate winter in Southern Europe in late 1538 and early 1539. Hunger was becoming common on the streets and in the alleys of Rome. Word spread quickly that Ignatius and his companions offered shelter, food and religious instruction for those they took in.

In all, thousands came to the home that would eventually be the spot, later in 1539, where the Jesuits formalized their identity as a religious order.

Did the men that winter perform humanitarian acts or works of religious piety?

A similar question could be asked about the Catholic response to famine in the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. At the behest of Pope Pius XI, Jesuit Fr. Edmund Walsh, who founded the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, served as head of the Vatican's Papal Famine Relief Mission to the Soviet Union.

At a time when as many as 6 million may have perished due to hunger, that mission had an obvious humanitarian focus. But the assignment "was political, too," scholar Susan Martin said at a forum on faith-based humanitarianism May 15 at Fordham University in New York.

Martin, of Georgetown's Institute for the Study of International Migration, noted that the Walsh mission came at a time when the Soviet Union was then cracking down on the church.

Those assisted by the Catholic famine aid numbered less than 200,000, though that assistance did reach those made most vulnerable, Martin noted. Yet, as is so often the case with humanitarian assistance, the aid came with layers of complexity. Walsh and his fellow Jesuits were attired in secular garb and made clear their mission was humanitarian. At the same time, they did not hide the fact that their succor was, as Walsh called it, a gift "from the Catholics of the world."

During this time in the Soviet Union, Walsh, known for being a savvy political negotiator, secured the remains of Jesuit missionary and martyr Andrew Bobola and had them sent to Rome.

One result of the mission was that Walsh returned to the United States as a fervent anti-communist, and was a likely influence on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, among others. Upon his death in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower eulogized Walsh, saying, "At every call to duty, all his energy of leadership and wisdom of counsel were devoted to the service of the United States."

How to characterize the Walsh mission: Was it religious? Humanitarian? Political? All three? The lines intersected. And how to characterize Walsh himself? Was he a humanitarian? Acting out of a faith tradition? Or acting on behalf of the ascendant American Empire?

At the Fordham forum, Martin and others said the various strands within the Walsh mission show that the theme of faith-based humanitarianism is nothing new.

Calling the history of missionary and relief work "intertwined," Elizabeth Shakman Hurd of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., said that for many, "it has been a package deal." As one example, in the wake of World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur saw the rebuilding of Japan as a quasi-religious mission in which democracy commingled with Christianity.

Even so, Fordham's Center on Religion and Culture, which sponsored the event, noted in its promotion that faith-based humanitarianism "has become a growth industry in recent years, channeling the influence of privately held religious commitments into the public sphere around the globe."

David Rieff, who has written extensively on the tensions within the humanitarian world, noted that "humanitarian action will always reflect its time," and today's world is no exception. "The world is in flux, so the humanitarian world is in flux," he said.

The image of faith-based humanitarianism may today be that of growing numbers of evangelical Protestant groups that blur the lines between their proselytizing and their relief and development work, often in locales like Haiti, where there is a long history of mission work. …

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