The new president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace landed in Rome last month to begin his role as Pope Benedict XVI’s right-hand man for questions regarding the Church’s social teaching. 

A 61-year-old native of Ghana, Cardinal Peter Turkson took over for retiring 77-year-old Italian Cardinal Renato Martino.  

The job has its pitfalls. Because of the range of topics under its purview, it tends to draw controversial headlines, usually regarding the Church’s positions on things such as the use of condoms to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS or “just war” doctrine. 

Upcoming challenges

In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor in his Rome office, Cardinal Turkson identified as priority challenges “human rights, exploitation and poverty, solidarity with our world, with the environment, with people of different classes, our world economic partners [and] globalization.” 

“We call them challenges because they challenge the Church’s mission,” he said. 

One example is the pope’s appeals for better stewardship of the environment. Pope Benedict, the cardinal said, has invited all of humanity to be in solidarity with creation and with future generations concerning responsible stewardship for the goods that God has entrusted to humankind. 

Cardinal Turkson also highlighted the pope’s “appeals to the world’s conscience about economic procedures and measures that are adopted and how these can become exploitative with regard to very many cultures and even as regards the pursuit of the goods of the earth.” 

His first item of business was to meet with Pope Benedict to learn the pontiff’s vision for the peace and justice office. The cardinal said he has no explicit agenda apart from that of the pontiff’s, because “it is the pope who is steering the boat.” 

Since taking the office’s helm, he has made news by saying he has no objection to Pope John Paul II’s would-be assassin praying at the pontiff’s tomb — “This is a normal thing to do. ... The first to forgive him was John Paul II” — and calling the appointment of a laywoman as No. 3 in his office a sign of “the concern of the Church for the promotion of the dignity and rights of women in the world.” 

Synod’s lasting fruits 

Pope Benedict officially announced Cardinal Turkson’s new position during the Synod of Bishops for Africa last fall. 

At the end of the synod, Pope Benedict received 52 propositions from the synod, which called for a new spirituality to counter bad government, ethnic tensions, disease, exploitation by multinational companies and the cultural agenda of foreign aid organizations. 

Cardinal Turkson said the synod’s message was especially tough for some African politicians to hear because there were “people who found the message too pungent, too strong in language to a point when the message addressed itself to African leaders, telling them to shape up or ship out. 

“I suppose that it was out of the conviction that developed at the synod that the leadership in Africa has a lot to do with what is happening in the different African countries, and the type of leadership that the different countries have goes a long way to determine the state of life, the well-being, the economic progress and development of the different countries.” 

Future pope? 

Cardinal Turkson admitted he had heard rumors about his appointment, but he said, “I used to believe, probably naively, that once you were a cardinal in a diocese that they probably wouldn’t move you to Rome, and I liked to believe that, and I stuck with that for a long time.” 

As the time drew near, Cardinal Turkson learned it was coming during the synod. 

“The secretary of state had kind of chatted with me about this to tell me that this was coming and to prepare myself for that,” he said. 

But he added, “If the question is what did the Holy Father see in me to think I would be able to do this … that is something I probably don’t have an answer for!” 

While in Ghana, Cardinal Turkson was president of a New York-based group called the World Conference of Religions for Peace. He was also president of a group called the National Peace Council, which moderated Ghana’s most recent elections. Cardinal Turkson also led the effort to establish the country’s first Catholic university and served as its chancellor.  

He has a higher degree in sacred Scriptures from the Pontifical Biblical Institute. In addition to English and the local Fante language, he speaks French, Italian, German and Hebrew fluently. He has written knowledge of Latin and Greek. 

No stranger to the justice and peace council, having been a member since 2008, he also serves on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, the permanent council of the Synod of Bishops, and the governing committee of the Pontifical Missionary Societies. 

Vatican watchers have already begun moving him up the list of the “ papabile, ” or potential future popes. 

Mary Shovlain writes from Rome.

Commitment to Africa (sidebar)

The Church in Africa and the problems faced on the continent from war, disease and famine is at the heart of Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy. This is evident from his appointment of Cardinal Peter Turkson to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the pope’s visit to Cameroon and Angola last spring and the recent synod. 

Cardinal Turkson said despite efforts to obscure the pope’s message during his trip to Africa by creating controversy over the use of condoms to limit the spread of AIDS, the pope’s message came through loud and clear to Africans. “A big thing that came out of this was his invitation in Cameroon to all of Africa not to be afraid to believe in Christ. That was a big thing that dominated his visit … the offer of Christ as an answer and as a solution to many situations and issues in Africa.

Cardinal's Road to Rome (sidebar)

All roads lead to Rome, and Cardinal Peter Turkson’s journey began in a small manganese mining camp in the village of Wassaw Nsuta, Ghana. His life took an important turn when he had to choose to go to high school or seminary. 

“If you finished elementary school and got to middle school, you could sit for a common entrance exam and go on to secondary school. I did that,” he said. “At the same time, I saw an advert, a kind of a vocation drive, asking young people who were interested to apply to seminary, and I did that, too. The two responses came on the same day, and my father asked me to make a choice, and I chose to go to seminary. That is the beginning of what you could call my vocation.” 

After seminary, he studied theology in Ghana and was sent to Albany, N.Y., to continue his studies. He was ordained for the Diocese of Cape Coast in 1975 and appointed archbishop of the diocese in 1992. Pope John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2003, making him the first cardinal from Ghana.