In October 2009, Cardinal Peter Turkson, then the archbishop of Cape Coast in Ghana, came to Rome for a Synod of Bishops on Africa expecting to spend a month. Eight years later he’s still here, having been named to a Vatican office at the end of that summit and now heading Pope Francis’ new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
In effect, Turkson was deemed too valuable, by two popes in a row, to let him go home. Today he’s arguably the Vatican’s most important African, acting as Francis’ social justice point man.
Cardinal Turkson showed why he’s such a good fit for the Pope Francis era in a recent interview. On the immigration policies being pursued by the Trump administration in the United States, he carefully said Rome will defer to the U.S. bishops, but also pointedly challenged Trump to reflect on a possible conflict of values.
“You provide safety for your people, yes, but would ensuring the safety of the U.S. alone lead to general safety for the world?” he asked. “Is there also a global value that needs to be looked at, instead of a simple national value?”
On the impact of Francis’s ecological manifesto “Laudato Si’” Cardinal Turkson noted that no papal encyclical has ever quoted the documents of bishops’ conferences around the world so extensively — which implies, he said, a responsibility for bishops to step up and make sure its vision takes hold.
“The pope has done his part,” he said. “It’s now up to the local bishops to come on board in teaching and making the message of “Laudato Si’” known. The pope has reached down, referred to all of you, invited all of you on board, to teach this.”
Cardinal Turkson said that bishops in the developing world should do so with extra urgency, since their people are the “projected victims” of climate change. He spoke during a March 22-25 summit of African Catholic leaders in Rome sponsored by the Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame.
His talk at the summit focused on the need for African Catholic clergy to shape consciences but stay out of direct political engagement. He called them to follow “the way of the shepherd,” quoting language from emeritus Pope Benedict XVI at the close of the 2009 African synod.
In part, he suggested, he’s trying to save Africa from repeating the painful experiences of the Church in Latin America during the early years of the liberation theology movement, when several priests did take up political roles and some even embraced armed revolution.
Finally, Cardinal Turkson denied that he finds it hard to keep up with the ever-on-the-go Pope Francis, but conceded that “the pace at which he moves is striking, you can’t just miss it.
“I think it’s the way that any convinced pastor feels and acts,” Cardinal Turkson said of his boss. “We’ve lived with all these stagnant evils for so long, how can we not, with urgency, engage them and try to make a change?”