ROME – 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’s 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’s social justice point man.
In a Crux interview on Saturday, Turkson showed why he’s such a good fit for the Pope Francis era. 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’, 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.”
Turkson said that bishops in the developing world should do so with extra urgency, since their people are the “projected victims” of climate change.
Turkson spoke to Crux 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, 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,” 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?”
The following are excerpts from the Crux interview, which can also be found in video form on the Crux Facebook page.
Crux: You spoke this morning about finding a third way between theological abstraction and direct political action in trying to face the social challenges of Africa. You invoked language from Pope Benedict XVI at the end of the second Synod for Africa in 2009 in talking about ‘The Way of the Shepherd.’ Can you unpack that?
Turkson: The way of the shepherd implies a contrast between the shepherd and the sheep, so it refers to the pastor, the leader. Essentially, we’re talking about the leadership of the Church. This we need to clarify, because [after the talk] somebody came up and asked me, ‘Does that mean that Christians can’t enter politics?’ And I said, ‘No.’
You’re not saying lay Catholics shouldn’t be engaged in politics?
No, that’s not what it is. It’s the leadership. Sometimes, pastors may be tempted to think that to be of help to their flock, they need to become political activists or whatever. A priest can’t do that. So the thing about the way of a pastor, or the path of a shepherd, is simply an invitation to the leadership to find guidance in the right response to the situation of their flock, the situation they’re dealing with, in the wisdom of the Church’s own direction.
It’s basically a matter of turning to the values of the Church: respect for human dignity, respect for the common good, the rights of people, a respectful sense of solidarity, concrete living in a fraternity of people.
In these principles of the Church’s social teaching, [pastors can] find a way of navigating through all of this. That means, of course, that by teaching these values, you provide people with a way to engage politics, which is actually part of their vocation, inspired and guided by these principles, so they can exercise political power for the benefit, the advantage, of the people.
If lay people are going to exercise political power, they must recognize that in doing so they’re exercising a mandate entrusted to them by a people to ensure their common good. They should recognize that power does not belong to them, but that it’s been entrusted in their hands because the people trust that they can exercise it for their common good.
If a lot of politicians in Africa would be filled with this, it would be a great change. Pope Benedict in one of his travels preparing for the second African synod, in Angola, said this, he challenged politicians to act with “righteous conducts and hearts.” If so, you can save your people and the continent from a lot of the abuses they’re suffering. Pastors need to embrace this, which would mean also giving formation to Catholic politicians, Christian politicians, so they can exercise this.
So, the path of the shepherd is simply to ensure that Church leaders do not yield or fall into the trap of thinking that if they want to do something [for their people], they themselves have to become politicians.
You quoted Benedict XVI a good deal in your speech this morning. Pope Benedict was often seen as excessively Eurocentric, but what I took away is that you believe he had a lot to say to Africa.
In terms of being ‘Eurocentric’, I don’t know if anyone would say Francis is ‘Latin America-centric?’ Pope Benedict had a lot of good things to say to Africa. When he went to Benin, for instance, he said, “Do not deprive these people of hope.” That’s one of the big things the second Synod for Africa ended with, a note of hope. Anybody who believes in God cannot be a person who lives without hope. Benedict is not as Eurocentric [as people think] …
Speaking of Pope Francis, he’s legendarily driven and always doing things. Do you ever find it hard to keep up with him?
No, although the pace at which he moves is striking and it’s noticeable, you can’t just miss it. It’s almost like somebody who’s had a revelation that he only has so long to live. But I think it’s the way that any convinced pastor feels and acts. 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?
Last night, the Holy Father met the EU heads of state. Of course, several of the founding fathers of the EU were convinced Christians – Adenauer, Schuman, De Gasperi, and so on, and a couple are on the path to sainthood. Looking at the African landscape today, do you see that kind of convinced Christian leader?
People talked about [Julius] Nyerere [of Tanzania] in the past. People have also talked about [Nelson] Mandela, who provided responsible leadership. Lately we’ve found people who have expressed a willingness to associate, come on board with others.
When the African leaders came up with a new economic partnership for the development of Africa, they talked about an African renaissance. [Thabo] Mbeki in South Africa, John Kufuor in Ghana. Today, Kufuor’s foreign minister is now president in Ghana, and I’m hoping that the vision he proposed back then can become a kind of a beacon.
Unfortunately, good politicians on the continent now are kind of rare. There’s always the conflict about people hanging on to power, organizing elections and making sure that they’ll win, and all that. But we’re still hoping that one or two will emerge from this process – like the one in Ghana, and Nigeria also had a peaceful election the other day – to become a kind of leaven, which will begin to infect the other heads of state with these ideals.
Shame them into doing the right thing?
It’s interesting that you use that word. In the past, we thought that shaming people in the media could cause a lot of change. Sometime back, when I was in Ghana, I was working with the peace council, and that’s what we tried to do, but it didn’t really produce that kind of result.
Significantly, I was watching the news the other day, French 24, their English version, and there was somebody, a columnist I think of the New York Times or Washington Post, I forget the name now, who was being interviewed. It struck me what he said. I think he was referring to the ongoing struggles in the U.S. between Trump and Obama, accusing one of having tapped his phone and all of that. And this guy said, gee, if a head of state can smear a former head of state and get away with it without being held accountable, then we’re setting a very dangerous standard for people. And I think something like that has already characterized the political landscape in Africa, in some of these countries. People can get up and lie about almost anything.
So in other words, these people are basically shameless, they’re beyond shame?
Kind of, kind of. It’s almost like political expediency, personal interest and gain… The other day we were talking about a situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and when we were talking to some of the bishops who are trying to mediate between [President Joseph] Kabila and the opposition over a change of government, they were telling us that, “We were talking with politicians who are Catholic, but who were saying clearly to our face, ces’t la politique (‘this is politics.’)
Now, what is politics? Is it the pursuit of personal interests and gain? Is that what politics is? Or, is it the exercise of power for the benefit of others? But this idea of power for the benefit of others is not on their radar screen. It’s being in a position, and what can you get from that position for personal interest. So, there’s a lot of work for us to do…
All of which illustrates what you were saying about pastors trying to form a new generation of political leaders…
Yes, inspired by the right ideals.
You mentioned President Trump. Obviously, a core component of your work is work on behalf of migrants and refugees. The early moves of the Trump administration have not necessarily been friendly to migrants and refugees. How alarmed are you about the precedent being set by this administration?
In the United States, this is certainly so out of tune, as it were, with popular Christian sentiment, although it’s hard to say because you cannot even be sure of that. We know that the U.S. bishops in the past, even under Obama, went all the way to the border with Mexico to celebrate Mass and pray for [immigration reform], in recognition of the very many needy brothers and sisters who were trying to cross the border.
I was there with Cardinal Sean O’Malley when he did that [in 2014] …
Right. Now, the president is invoking another value, which is protection of Americans, to do whatever he’s doing with a Mexican wall and preventing certain people from coming in. He’s invoking a value which resonates well with a lot of Americans, their safety. And of course, anybody would be convinced of the need for any head of state or government to ensure the safety of its citizens.
These are two core values that may be in conflict: You provide safety for your people, yes, but would ensuring the safety of the U.S. alone lead to general safety for the world? Is there also a global value that needs to be looked at, instead of a simple national value?
We would hope that in this particular discussion, we have to recognize … you know the name of our office, Integral Human Development. It’s the development of an individual, totally, and of the rest, all together. It’s not just about one person developed in his fullness. That development must resonate with others.
So the thing is, can we assure the security we’re looking for when it’s only an insular type of engagement, without reference to the rest?
You could also ask whether that insular type of security actually makes you secure…
That’s an important point. When it comes to this, we recognize the tensions, but we would still, from our office, defer to the local Church authority. The bishops’ conference went to the border. We would probably see what this conference does.
So far they’ve been quite outspoken.
Sure. In this sense we’re hoping that now, in this regard, the President has met with Angela Merkel, who has a completely different vision of all of this. Our hope is that in the interactions that ensue, the President may be led to see other dimensions of this issue.
When Trump comes over in May for the G8, if he does meet the Holy Father, are you hoping to brief the pope on that meeting?
It depends. The [Vatican] Secretary of State, as you know, has its own apparatus for doing this. The nuncio in Washington is there, they have their own second section, and all of that. But sometimes, on some particular issues, we’ve been asked to provide information on certain issues, and we do, on certain matters that are likely to come up for discussion. And our office would provide the current information.
Just make sure your cell phone is fully charged as May gets close, because I want you to get that call!
On a different front, we heard a presentation about Laudato Si’. You were very involved in the process that led to Laudato Si’, and I want to ask you about its reception. We saw the impact it had on the Paris Climate change summit, but I’m interested more in its intra-Catholic reception. Do you see it changing actual Catholic practice around the world?
It is, but not evenly, let’s say. Since Laudato Si’ was published, I’ve done a lot of travel in your part of the world, visiting universities and parishes. I’ve seen situations in which a sort of catechesis on Laudato Si’ has been developed to stimulate its application. I’ve still also found people on the same trips who’ve expressed a certain amount of consternation, a certain amount of regret, that priests are not telling us about this, so you have both.
Personally, whenever I’ve had the chance to present Laudato Si’, I note that one of its crucial characteristics is its collegial sense. No encyclical has quoted local episcopal conferences as much as Laudato Si’ does. It’s as if Pope Francis were saying, ‘I’m teaching this with my brother bishops around the world.’
Now, when that is the case, I would say the pope has done his part. 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. Now the document is made and it has to be broadened out to the knowledge of all the people.
Just as he quoted bishops, bishops must now take up the document and kind of make it their own and readily promote knowledge of its content and all that. That is not being done evenly around the world.
I just saw the presentation the gentleman made this morning. [Note: Father Raymond Aina of Nigeria spoke Saturday morning on Laudato Si’, among other things suggesting Internet searches reveal relatively little African discussion.] His searches were a little bit limited. If you say, ‘Laudato Si’ in Africa,’ there could be a lot of Africans looking for Laudato Si’ but not ‘in Africa,’ but in other contexts.
I’m aware that a few other programs have been organized to promote this, in Nairobi, in Zambia. I was in Zambia last August where we had Church leaders, government officials and miners working together, talking about Laudato Si’ and its impact.
It’s a document which cannot easily be exhausted, or even kind of swept under the rug by the publication of another document, as the guy seems to have suggested – that with the publication of Amoris Laetitia, interest in Laudato Si’ dropped off.
But the two are very different documents…
They are. Both of them are addressing crucial issues, but I think the pertinence and relevance of Laudato Si’ is very strong and will be for a very long time.
In terms of reception, I think we can do a lot more. Because everybody who looks at the issues addressed in Laudato Si’, climate change, global warming, pollution, water, and all of that … everybody says that the poor countries in Africa and the southern part of the world will suffer from this most. So how come the interest is not there? How come is it not talked about? How come the projected victims affected by climate change are not getting the message?
Isn’t the implication that bishops in developing countries ought to be at the forefront of promoting the message of Laudato Si’?
That’s the point about collegiality. The South African bishops’ conference was one of the first to be cited, quoted by Pope Francis in his encyclical. South Africa therefore must come on board. Other bishops’ conferences should do the same.
Environmental degradation in Africa is huge. If it’s not happening with deforestation, it’s happening with mining. If it’s not happening with mining, it’s happening with polluted water waste. In the past, before the publication of Laudato Si’, I used to challenge people to say that now that we have the UN Millenium Development Goals, and part of it was governments creating access to potable water for their citizens. I used to say, there needs to be a certain amount of coherence in the conduct of government. You don’t go over to New York to sign a document, and then come back and contaminate every source of drinkable water you have.
In Ghana, they do mining in rivers and water ways that have traditionally been a source of clean, drinkable water. But you do mining in them, and that means you throw all the chemicals and everything into them. So you don’t sign something, and then not follow through.
Did Ghana sign on to the MDGs?
Yes, Ghana was on board.