DURHAM, England — Pope Benedict XVI has such confidence in Cardinal Peter Turkson of the west African nation of Ghana that he appointed him president for the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2009 and added to his list of other Vatican responsibilities that of member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2010.
With such responsibility, it is hardly surprising that the man who did part of his priestly training at St. Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer, N.Y., is willing to stick his head above the proverbial parapet, particularly where the continent of his birth is concerned.
When asked recently about the fears of Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, that Egypt could become a “new Iraq” with Christians cleansed from the area by militant Islam, Cardinal Turkson said that “all of us have that concern.”
“If the revolution and all of the government changes there and in North Africa lead to the development of democratic cultures, conditions and governments, then we would be happy about that. But if in the wake of all this, we get governments that are Islamic in character and less tolerant, then we would have reason to be very worried.
“For example, in the case of Egypt, it appears as if the Islamic Brotherhood is already a pretty organized group. If, for example, they stepped in and became the next government, they have already declared certain points of view that they have which naturally would not be too comfortable for the Coptic Christians living there. In that case, we have reason to be worried.”
He went on to draw from his own experience in Ghana and sub-Saharan Africa: “In Ghana we have always lived with Muslims — in several places they preceded even the arrival of Christian missionaries. But it was a peaceful existence. You had families with members who were Catholic, Methodist and Muslim. But lately there’s been the movement of purifying Islam, and this is making it less tolerant of non-Islamic elements in society — and that is a concern.”
Instead, he said that the wider issue is one about the rights of citizens in a nation, citing increasingly Islamic states like Iraq and Iran “where people can lose their citizenship rights because of their being of a different faith.”
“There are people in Iraq and Iran who,” he continued, “because they are not Muslims, are talked about as if they are being done a favor. But the point is that these are Iraqis; these are Iranians. So they are citizens of Iraq and citizens of Iran. They should have the same rights as citizens and not be treated as people who have requested another concession or favor. It’s not a question of favors, but one of citizenship rights, and they need to be treated as such.”
Cardinal Turkson was in England to visit the Center for Catholic Studies at Durham University, which includes the first professorial chair devoted to Catholic theology to be established at a secular university in England since the Reformation. Delivering the center’s Bishop Dunn memorial lecture, the cardinal was equally forthright about the current financial crisis, declaring that “man must be the protagonist of his development and not a tool.”
“When for any reason man is replaced by other concerns as protagonists of human development,” he continued, “there is crisis. Thus, the financial crisis is, in part, a manifestation of the spiritual and cultural malaise of our age and the replacement of the human person with profit and gain as the exclusive protagonist and goal of development.”
He described how in the period leading up to the crisis, the world “lived in a financial and economic bubble driven by individual greed, on the fallacy that the individual quest for gain and profit — selfishness and greed — in the management of our financial and economic affairs is capable of creating a rising tide that lifts all yachts. Unfortunately, most of us have no yachts, and some people, especially the marginalized in society, drowned in the tide; nor did people on the whole benefit from the expected trickle-down effect that prosperity is supposed to bring.”
He also said that “the human person, the protagonist and subject of human development, has a vocation not only of development, but also to transcendence, in correspondence to his creation as body and soul and called to communion with God.”
“Accordingly,” he continued, “to ignore the spiritual dimension of man — to overlook the transcendent aspect of the human person in efforts at fostering human development — actually diminishes human development. Regrettably, this has been an increasing trend since World War II, especially in the so-called first world: a trend that seems to be accelerating with the phenomenon of globalization.
“To leave religion out of the social picture, claiming that it belongs exclusively to the private sphere, or opposing its inclusion in public life as ‘divisive’ or ‘irrational,’ is to deny religious liberty, which is not only a basic human right, but, in some sense, the fundamental one, on which all the other basic rights depend.”
He has continually called for a shift in assisting developing nations: from a pattern of aid to one of investment.
“To a large extent,” the cardinal said, “the attitude of dealing with poverty and development in so-called emerging economies in third-world countries has just been the aid model. It is time to look at how long this has been done and what has been the result. The aid model has been used for so many years, and I think it’s time to look at it and think whether it’s worth continuing. Is it time to discover other means of helping countries emerge? That’s why the possibility of looking at investment becomes a reality to be reckoned with. Instead of giving aid, what about investment to create job opportunities and enhance production in some of these countries?
“Once you have production centers, you have sources of employment. Income levels can improve, and then standards of living can change accordingly. It is an alternative that is being studied by some groups in the United States, who are looking at the possibility of creating some kind of model based on production, industry and investment in the hope that when these are established they will create employment and enhance the buying capacity of the people and hopefully change the living standards of people. That is the alternative model that I am proposing.”
Bearing in mind his comments about radical Islam in the area, does this cause a problem for Catholic aid agencies where the Christian population is a minority?
“It doesn’t make any difference. You may be able to use a Muslim working on your staff just as Catholic Relief Services (CRS) also does in certain places. The staff of CRS in Africa are not always Christian or Catholic. The question of the theological and ecclesiological character is not limited to the use of Catholic Christian staff. It is the basic principal ideology driving that office. So there may well be a Muslim working in that office, but he knows the basic underlying principal driving the office is Catholic.”
With such issues falling under the purview of his rather large umbrella, the question naturally arises about the Vatican’s alleged blocking of the candidacy of Lesley-Anne Knight to continue as secretary general of Caritas Internationalis. Asked about his views on the matter, the cardinal speaks freely.
“Caritas is based in Rome, but it’s not really part of the Roman Curia, though the Vatican has general supervision. The corresponding office of the Roman Curia is Cor Unum. The candidates for the position of general secretary are presented to the Secretariat of State for a nihil obstat before they are voted on by Caritas members. The Secretariat of State could not see its way to giving the nihil obstat because of a new direction that they want to give to that office, making the office reflect more its theological and ecclesiological character.
“Caritas does charity, but all of that needs to be more radically rooted in theology and ecclesiology — it is supported by the reflection and witness of the Church. … What I have learned from this circular [issued by the Holy See’s Secretariat of State] is that the Secretariat of State feels that Caritas International should be made to reflect the Church’s character a bit more loudly and more visibly. That’s why, I think, they cannot approve the candidacy of Miss Knight.”
The scope of Cardinal Turkson’s responsibilities is clearly large — the fate of persecuted Christians, events in North Africa, the aftermath of the current financial crisis and the development of a new model to aid the development of poorer nations. Yet such heavy issues appear to weigh lightly on the jovial cardinal for reasons summarized by his simple response to being asked what he has given up for Lent: “For me, Lent is a process that goes on throughout the whole year. It’s my small, modest attempt to seek perfection through this day and every day of my life. … Every day for me is Lent, in that every day is a search to consolidate my relationship with Our Lord.”
Register Correspondent James Kelly, Ph.D., is a columnist for The Universe, the biggest-selling Catholic weekly in Britain and Ireland, and a researcher at the University of London.