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ROME – Multiple sources suggest that Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, currently head of the Vatican’s mega-dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, may be on his way out. Those sources say Turkson has offered his resignation to Pope Francis, though the pontiff has not yet decided whether to accept it.
Turkson is currently 73, so not yet the age of 75 at which bishops are automatically required to submit their resignations, and, by all accounts, he’s in basically good health. That means his departure wouldn’t exactly be routine, even if Jan. 1, 2022, will mark five years since he became the first prefect of his department, and such Vatican terms are generally considered to run in five-year segments.
It would be an especially surprising move given that Turkson has been considered one of Pope Francis’s key allies in the Vatican, a leading exponent of pope’s core social and political priorities. Some observers believe Turkson’s star has dimmed of late, however, related to perceived problems of management in his department, and that Turkson himself has offered to step down because he’s “fed up” with internal disputes.
For Turkson personally, the transition may well come as a relief. I remember vividly the Synod of Bishops on Africa in 2009, when he was the relator, or chair, and was being widely rumored for a senior Vatican post. What he really wanted to do at the time was get back to Ghana, but it wasn’t to be, as Pope Benedict XVI tapped him to run the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace at the end of synod.
By now, Turkson has spent twelve long years in the Vatican, and has every right to feel as if that’s more than enough.
That said, there are three observations about his still-unconfirmed departure worth recording.
First, in some ways it seemed baked into the cake that either Turkson or Cardinal Michael Czerny would have to go once Pope Francis named the Canadian Jesuit a Prince of the Church in October 2019, while also leaving him in the Dicastery for Promoting Human Development as his right-hand man on migrant and refugee issues.
It’s an anomaly in the Vatican to have two cardinals in the same department, an obvious prescription for awkwardness under the best of circumstances and tension and conflict in the normal swim of events. When you name two captains of the same ship, it’s basically the same as naming no one … it’s not clear to the crew who’s really the skipper, which usually translates into chaos.
This past summer, Francis summoned Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago to conduct an unusual “audit” of the dicastery, though official spokespersons took pains at the time to strike a “nothing to see here, no big deal” tone. Not long afterwards there were a couple of high-profile exits, including French Father Bruno-Marie Duffé, formerly the secretary, or number two official, and Father Augusto Zampini, an Argentine who’d been named Adjunct Secretary in 2020 – both moves which, at the time, suggested internal disarray.
The situation is an illustration, in other words, that Francis’s maverick style and frequent disregard of tradition is one of his greatest strengths, but from an administrative point of view, it can also be an Achille’s heel.
Second, Turkson’s resignation, taken in tandem with the February departure of Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, would mean there would no longer be an African serving as the head of a major Vatican office. The most senior African would become Archbishop Protase Rugambwa of Tanzania, the number two official at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.
Facing such as “Africa gap,” Francis would face pressure to name someone from the continent to a leadership post. Put simply, it’s just not good optics for Africa to be the zone of the greatest growth and missionary zeal for Catholicism in the early 21st century but left completely unrepresented at the most senior levels of the Vatican.
This isn’t just tokenism, because when a prelate is named to a senior Vatican post, he becomes de facto a point of reference in Rome for people from his part of the world. African diplomats, for example, often reached out to Turkson simply because he was “their man” in the belly of the beast. African churchmen with business in the Vatican often will approach a fellow African prelate for guidance and advice, just like American bishops hit up their fellow Americans and so on. Catholic activists, reformers, leaders of movements, even journalists from Africa who need an introduction in the Vatican often hope to get a sympathetic ear from the African cardinal who’s around.
Naming a senior official from Africa, therefore, is a key way for any pope to signal that he takes the continent seriously.
Third, there’s the question of what happens to Turkson himself.
At 73, he’s too young to retire, so by rights he should be given another gig. It’s hard to imagine him returning to Ghana or some other part of Africa at this age as a diocesan bishop, and, in any event, as a cardinal there are only so many places he could end up.
The more likely scenario, probably, would be a sinecure in Roma, such as serving as the archpriest of one of the papal basilicas. Polish Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko at St. Mary Major, for example, is now 76, meaning past retirement age, and has served more than five years in that post. Or, he could become the ecclesiastical patron of a papally-sponsored Catholic organization.
In any event, the point is that Turkson’s turn on the Roman stage may not be over quite yet, even if he’s no longer cast in a leading role. Whatever the part, it would be interesting to see how Turkson decides to play it.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr