Cardinal Turkson Discusses His New Role

As head of the Congregation for Promoting Integral Human Development, the cardinal from Ghana will oversee a body that once comprised four pontifical councils.

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana at a Holy See press conference on the synod on the family on Oct. 23, 2015.
Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana at a Holy See press conference on the synod on the family on Oct. 23, 2015. (photo: Daniel Ibanez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — The new “super-dicastery” for Promoting Integral Human Development will begin its work, headed by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, starting Jan. 1. The department will focus in particular on assisting and accompanying migrants, those in need, the sick, the excluded and marginalized, the imprisoned and the unemployed, as well as victims of armed conflict, natural disasters and all forms of slavery and torture.

All the duties that had been carried out by the Pontifical Councils for Justice and Peace, Cor Unum, Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, and Health Care Workers will also be merged into the one dicastery.

In this Dec. 1 interview, Cardinal Turkson discusses his role as head of the new body, as well as other issues, including his hopes in working with the Trump administration, concerns about the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and how his new dicastery is expected to give special attention to dealing strategically with the threats of “ideological colonization.”


Your Eminence, as head of the new dicastery that is about to begin its work, how are preparations going for its launch, and what will be your role?

It will be the same role as leading this dicastery. Basically, I think it’s going to be the same — one used to be president of a [pontifical] council; now they want to make me prefect of a congregation. So the name of the entity has changed and so will the name of the caretakers, if you like.


What will you be your scope — the main issues — you’ll be covering?

Like all dicasteries, they come with their task and vision. So the Holy Father formulates it in two ways: the concern of the Church for the social order, guided by the Gospel, and then there’s the response to the Pope’s own solicitude for the weak, the fragile and the needy, a whole list of other situations — migrants, victims of whatever human-rights issues. All of those come together. So one part is formulated as living out the Gospel imperative towards this group, an exercise of concern for the social order, guided by the Gospel. Then, for the other, it is meant to reflect the solicitude of the Holy Father, the concern of the Holy Father for the needy.


Although the aim is to make your work more efficient, could there be a danger of such a large dicastery having the opposite effect, because, often, a big bureaucracy is less efficient?

I suppose that would depend on the form that the structure takes and the operational models that it assumes. For us, it’s not just putting together four dicasteries. From the beginning, we decided it should not be a conglomerate, putting together four bits and trying to tie them up and have them work together. For us, we take it as an invitation from the Holy Father to conceptualize the Church’s mission in the social order, the Church’s service of diakonia, in a new way; then to see what kind of structures we need to respond or carry this out. So we’re not just taking [the congregations for] migrants, justice and peace and bringing them all together.

Drawing on the indications the Pope gives in the motu proprio, we think that we should try to formulate a new vision of the Church’s social order in a new way. In the past, these were seen as separate concerns — as pastoral care of the sick, pastoral care of migrants, people on the move, seafarers and all of that — all of these seemed closed off as different entities. If we were, however, to take the human person as the point of departure, as the core, and then look at the many different forms in which it gets rendered fragile, needy, rendered less, whatever type of thing, then it becomes a little bit easier to probably develop from that a sense of how they all belong together.

So when the human person is sick, we have this component, and then we’re looking at how the Church exercises its pastoral care, not only in the building of hospitals; but at a certain point, we look at how technology comes in, how research comes in, how new forms of understandings of sickness and all of that come in, the care and all of that.

When we look at the case of migrants and people on the move, seafarers and all of that, it’s the same [concept of a] displaced human person — a refugee, who lives in an environment that gets insecure and hostile, and he’s forced to move — the nature of that movement. Is it a movement in search of a better life, the search of economic migrants? Is it because of some violence or war that’s chasing them out of home? Is it because of simple travel on the sea? What happens when they’re on the boat, when they’re all so far away on the sea all by themselves?

This is the kind of treatment people are subjected to. So it’s the same human person and the many experiences of life which can now become the central point of reference and this kind of study.


You say the point of departure is the human person, but would you say the real point of departure is Jesus Christ?

Of course, yes. The human person obtains the full revelation of its own glory and nature with reference to Christ, the image in which the human person is created. So the reference to Christ is to discover the orientation; so the guidance for the consideration and treatment of the human person [is Jesus]. So, yes, I mean the Christocentric character of this is not denied; this is a basic point of departure. The methodology is Christocentric, but the object of the human person is still the human person. The method of dealing with the human person is the method to get Christocentric.


Would it, therefore, be appropriate to make that more overt? So, for example, instead of calling it the dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, could it be called Promoting Christ-Centered Human Development?

That may be true if you’re looking at it from a Catholic point of view, but as you know, the Church’s social ministry has never been limited to Christians and Catholics. In the past, we were called the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Where is the Christlike character in that title? When it was called Cor Unum, where was the Christlike character in the title?

The Christlike character comes only in the introductory formulation of the nature of the dicastery. That’s where the sense of the dicastery is formulated. So we have the title Cor Unum, Health Care Workers and all of that, and right after that, one explains from the point of view of the Church what that means. Then it goes into the structure and the different functions and roles. So, in the title itself, if you look at all dicasteries of the Roman Curia, none of the titles basically contain words that are basically its guiding principle.


What do you say to the common argument that in the past 50 years the Church has moved towards a more human-centered emphasis rather than a Christ-centered one?

We’ve heard that, too, but for me, it’s not either/or. Certainly, if you look at the justice and peace dicastery as it is now, some would say our consideration of issues is directed by social dynamics only, but in our mind it has never only been social dynamics. In the way we analyze and study different phenomena, there may be different social dynamics, but the thing which has inspired this from day one has been Gaudium et Spes [the Second Vatican Council’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world], from where we derive our basic inspiration for this. It suggests that the Church provide accompaniment to all of these.

Now, the Church provides accompaniment although the Church itself is part of humanity; so in one way, one can say: You provide something to which you belong, but you belong as a Church. It’s almost like saying he who has a vision has a mission.

When you have a different way of seeing something, then you have the mission of bringing that different way of seeing something to transform that reality. So that’s how the Church is: By responding to its call, revelation and all of that, then from this vantage point of this call, it comes to express a complimentary humanity. It is a part of humanity; but by reason of its revelation and its call to be a Church and all of that, it has got this new vision with which to provide accompaniment to society. So we’ve never functioned purely as a company, society, in the sense that we just become reduced to social dynamics and all of that, that we become immanent. There has always been the side of the transcendental. We derive a vision from here to offer accompaniment; so in my mind, the separation has never been this or that, that we’ve been horizontal and now we’re vertical. The Church by its character can never be purely horizontal or purely vertical.


But the argument is that it has been too focused on the horizontal and that it has neglected the vertical. It’s not that they’ve been separated.

How can any organization of the Church, described as a Church organization, still have a life that is reduced to purely the horizontal? Then it would have forgotten its character as a Church organization.

To give you an example, a few years ago, Cor Unum, then under Cardinal Robert Sarah, issued new statutes for Caritas, in an effort to ensure that its work was carried out in line with Catholic teaching and identity.

This was true of Caritas. [A few years ago] the then-secretary general of Caritas, very excellent and competent, adopted a purely professional, business-like approach. That was the only instance or case where they had this. [Cardinal] Sarah happened to be wrong place at the wrong time, or at the right place at the right time, so he happened to be in charge of Cor Unum at that time when they had to deal with this issue. So that was an experience that Caritas had which it had to deal with.


But I give it just as an example of where, in the Church’s social-justice area, there has been a drift towards neglecting the vertical in favor of the horizontal, and it has been in danger of becoming like any other non-governmental organization and other social organizations.

I would not deny the possibility of that existing, but, for me, what is the raison d’etre of a Church institution? It’s an institution which wraps its character in a new vision of reality from the revelation of the Gospel inspiration that it has. So if they will lose sight of that, how does it become anything different from whatever type of thing that we have?

It’s a challenge that can be there; it’s almost like an episode in the Bible, when the people of Israel were saying: “Give us a king because we want to be like other nations.” But, in reality, you are not like other nations. The challenge and the tendency is always there, being like others, but … no Church [organization] is not just an organization like any other; otherwise, it’s not a Church organization.


Moving on to immigration, for which the Holy Father will have special oversight in your new dicastery. How confident are you that the Holy See will be able to work effectively with the forthcoming Trump administration on this and other social-justice issues?

I don’t think I’ll pitch in against one presidential candidate again! It happened just when Laudato Si [Care of Our Common Home] came out. [Cardinal Turkson said in 2015 it was “unfortunate” that Jeb Bush had said he doesn’t “get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals, or from my Pope.”]

In any case, the Holy Father is taking oversight over this part of the dicastery, and I think it’s his way of showing the great importance of the issue, the urgency of it and the need to do something concretely. We know the causes of it are not the same.

In our office, at least, it’s clear there are at least four currents of this movement from Latin America to the U.S., a motivation that’s economic essentially, from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe; the motivation essentially is economic, apart from a few random cases like Boko Haram and security and conflict in Nigeria. Then there’s a movement from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East towards Europe. They’re clearly [issues of] security and conflict. Then, from South East Asia towards Australia and Singapore, there are two things: religious persecution, Buddhist elements and the economic thing. So for these various reasons, people are on the move now.


What are your concerns about the U.S. situation?

In the case of the U.S., we all begin to see Mr. Trump modify his position after the victory. Things are not so black and white as he used to formulate them during the campaign, and so who knows what his ultimate formulation for this will be? So, at this stage, I don’t think we can take any of his campaign positions seriously, since they may come under review and reformulation. But about building a wall, the U.S. bishops’ conference made a pilgrimage to the [Mexico-U.S. border] to show their own solidarity and care for whatever type of thing [that is at issue].

In any case, when Trump talked about a wall, the Holy Father made an observation about the wall, and Mr. Trump took that personally. That was a little bit unfortunate because, at the time the Holy Father made a statement, it wasn’t only Trump talking about building walls. The thing in Mexico was there, but Hungary was also talking about that — Poland a little bit, also. So Trump making that observation was a little bit unfortunate because the Holy Father was referring to anyone who builds a wall, whenever; therefore, it wasn’t [just about] Trump.


Some of Trump’s advisers seem to support a kind of “enlightened capitalism,” so not crony or communist capitalism, but more a kind of “economic humanism.” Is that something you and the dicastery will support?

I would ask for an explanation of “economic humanism” or whatever that is — if that is in the same sense of what people in Europe call a “social market economy,” because in capitalism there’s an element of [a] market. There’s an element of free trade and competition. These are the basic ingredients of capitalism. This also exists in the social market economy of Germany, which means all of this [in the economy] must promote the social life of people in that society — therefore, in that formulation, [it means] subjugating all of this under social human concern.

For every Christian, as has been said way before, the point of departure is that of the human person, the only thing that God created for its own sake. Everything else is for the well-being and good of the human person. Therefore, if this principle guided every human activity, then there would always be the central concern for the human person, who would always be respected.

But sometimes this human person, the only thing ever created for its own sake, is reduced to other things that replace the other person for their own sake, when [in] the pursuit of only profit and gain, the person becomes a victim, when the tendency is [to do] anything to just get this [end achieved]. We get that in slave conditions; we get that in our trafficked persons; we get that in people working in all types of labor conditions, so the profit can be maximized.

The phenomenon in the U.S. and other Western countries of moving factories to poorer salary areas — what is it? Because you pay cheaper. It’s the same for the human person. If he’s worth a certain salary here, why should he not earn the same salary out there? At a certain point, when that is the case, then the real concern driving development and growth of industry is not the well-being of the person, it’s profit, it’s gain. Then we [the Church] begin to say: let’s see if we can change things a little bit.


On the subject of “ideological colonization”: Will that be an important part of the dicastery? Will it be a priority of yours to try and combat that? To give an example, billboards are present all over Africa funded by UNFPA, the U.N. agency, advocating family planning, which includes contraception, abortion and sterilization. Could one way to combat this be to fund other billboards that counteract that message and promote the Church’s teaching?

Ideological colonization is a big thing; it’s not only the billboards, nor only in a big way has it been to do with a homosexual campaign. It has taken several other forms.

So the question you ask about this office: A big part of this task, of this office, will be to enable local Churches to strategize in the face of all the several negative currents. Part of it is the traditional support for mission activity and missionary life in the mission countries. … But the need for the Church to be alive and active is becoming stronger. The first challenge comes from Islamic countries, where they have a lot of resources, building mosques everywhere, encouraging and paying for conversions. That’s happening everywhere. There are so very many challenges in this regard.

Another one is just what you mentioned: the conditions given and set by foreign aid, which end up as billboards and all of that; so the thing is about strategizing against this, with the meager resources that we have. What can we do effectively with them? That’s going to be the biggest challenge. So I’m hoping that in this new office we’ll probably have a project, an operation in our wing or something.

The tradition of justice and peace has been the promotion of social thought and all of that … but I think we’ll have to develop a very big office over here that will provide very decent support to local Churches, in terms of strategizing as well as helping them come by resources. The two or three seminars we’ve organized about impact investment, venture philanthropy and all of those [issues] can probably be the things we can pursue to have local Churches have some of the things they need to do to be able to stay afloat.


Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

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