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A papal contender grabs the spotlight

Rome saw a striking coincidence this week, which could be either simple luck or a sign of things to come. There were two big-ticket Vatican news flashes, Monday's note on reform of the international economy and Thursday's summit of religious leaders in Assisi. In both cases, the same Vatican official was a prime mover: Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Turkson, still young in church terms at 63, was the chief organizer of the Assisi gathering, just as he was the top signatory on the document blasting "neo-liberal" ideologies and calling for a "true world political authority" to regulate the economy. During Vatican press conferences to present both, Turkson was the star attraction each time.

Can anyone say, papabile?

Before getting over-heated, however, three cautions are in order.

First, there's no sign of a health crisis around Benedict XVI. Granted, on Oct. 16, Benedict used a mobile platform in St. Peter's Basilica for the first time, but Vatican spokespersons said that was simply to make things easier for the 84-year-old pontiff rather than the result of any "medical indication." (For the record, the distance from the sacristy, down the main aisle and then up to the central altar is more than 100 yards. Every liturgy involves covering it twice, meaning the pope had to walk more than two football fields in heavy liturgical garb. Frankly, given the choice, I'd take the platform too.)

Second, we've been down this road before ... fascinated by a charismatic African cardinal in Rome, who seems a runner to become the first black pope. In their day, both Cardinals Bernardin Gantin of Benin and Francis Arinze of Nigeria were viewed that way. For that matter, some believe that if the next pope is to be an African, it's at least as likely to be Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, the 66-year-old president of Cor Unum, the Vatican's policy arm for Catholic charities.

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Third, not everyone was thrilled by the developments involving Turkson this week. Neo-conservatives were dismayed by the note on the economy, and traditionalists howled over Assisi. (A colleague jokingly suggested the Vatican must have designated this the week to irritate the Catholic right, but that's another topic.) Being associated with a high-profile initiative, in other words, not only invites attention but controversy.

With those caveats, there are still four good reasons to keep an eye on Turkson.

1. An 'African Moment'

First is the obvious point that Africa is the most dynamic spot on the Catholic map. During the 20th century, the Catholic population of sub-Saharan Africa swelled from 1.9 million to 139 million, a growth rate of almost 7,000 percent. An African pope would put a face on that burgeoning Catholic footprint, not just in Africa but across the southern hemisphere.

Turkson would be a fitting choice. His predecessor as Archbishop of Cape Coast in Ghana, John Kodwo Amissah, became the first indigenous African archbishop in modern times in 1957. Ghana is one of the few nations in western Africa with a Christian majority, and has traditionally played a leadership role in church affairs. (The headquarters of SECAM, the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar, are in Ghana's capital, Accra.)

Today, many African Catholics believe their historical turn has arrived. Two years ago, when a furor in the West broke out over comments by Pope Benedict en route to Cameroon to the effect that condoms make the AIDS problem worse, several African bishops half-jokingly said, "If they don't want the pope in Europe anymore, we'll take him here."

In the end, it may prove easier to bring Africa to the papacy than the other way around.

2. Roman seasoning

Turkson's early reputation was as a gifted spokesperson for the African church, but some wondered how he might hold up under the spotlight in Rome.

When Benedict tapped Turkson as the relator, or general secretary, for the Synod for Africa in 2009, at first those doubts grew. On the opening day, during a Vatican press conference, Turkson gave a rambling answer to a question about condoms and AIDS, prompting misleading, but understandable, headlines such as, "The bishop says yes to condoms." When Turkson made it known privately he didn't really want a Vatican job, it struck some as a laudable lack of careerism, but to others it suggested doubt about whether he was up to the challenge.

In the last two years, Turkson has improved on those early perceptions.

Signs of papal confidence now abound, including the fact that Benedict XVI made Turkson a member of the ultra-powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a year ago, and that last March, Benedict tapped Turkson as his personal envoy to Ivory Coast (though fighting around Abidjan made it impossible for him to get there). In effect, Turkson has been the principal exegete and publicist for Benedict's social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate.

Turkson has also impressed people as a thinker. A small, but telling, gesture came at the beginning of his tenure. His predecessor at the Council for Justice and Peace, Italian Cardinal Renato Martino, wanted to raise the office's profile, so he hired a publicist. By way of contrast, Turkson brought his own theological advisor, Jesuit Fr. Michael Czerny. Insiders saw that as an option for substance over PR.

3. Comfort level with diversity

Turkson is every bit an African, but also a well-traveled figure who knows languages and cultures, and his biography has given him a comfort level with diversity. For one thing, he comes from a Catholic father and a Methodist mother, so ecumenism is literally in his bones.

Turkson studied at St. Anthony-on-the-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer, N.Y., in the 1970s. (It closed in 1989.) He put in two stints as a student in Rome, in the '70s and again in the early '90s. Turkson earned a doctorate from the prestigious Pontifical Biblical Institute, where he rubbed shoulders with scholars and future leaders from all over the world.

Turkson's exposure to Western pastoral models means that, unlike some prelates of a different generation, he's comfortable with collaborative decision-making, lay empowerment and an enhanced role for women. His under-secretary at the Council for Justice and Peace is actually an Italian lay woman, Flaminia Giovanelli.

His background as a Biblical scholar is also worth underscoring.

Some of the more interesting prelates around trained as biblisti, such as Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini (formerly of Milan), and Patriarch Antonios Naguib of Egypt's Coptic Catholic church. As a rule of thumb, Biblical scholars often have an appreciation for nuance, a capacity to look beyond surface meanings, which can stand a future leader in good stead.

4. Not ideological

Turkson comes off as refreshingly free of ideological prejudice, at least as such things are measured in the West.

Because he runs the Vatican's office on peace and justice, there's a natural tendency in some quarters to assume that Turkson must be on the liberal side. In truth, people who know him say that in many ways, he's fairly conservative. For instance, when the Vatican moved recently to assert tighter control over Caritas Internationalis, the Rome-based umbrella group for Catholic charities worldwide, Turkson told people behind the scenes that maybe beefing up its Catholic identity wasn't a bad idea.

Turkson certainly does not feel bound by the canons of Western political correctness. He's bluntly said on several occasions, for instance, that theological dialogue with Muslims is basically impossible, so it's better to concentrate on solving social problems. During the recent Synod for the Middle East, Turkson was among the voices calling for a stronger challenge to Islamic governments to respect the rights of religious minorities.

At the same time, the Council for Justice and Peace under Turkson has quietly resisted efforts by some neo-conservative and free-market Catholic groups in the West, especially in the United States, to exercise greater influence on its work -- suggesting that he doesn't want the office to be captive to any particular ideological agenda.

Without doubt, Turkson sees himself as a tribune for Africa and the peoples of developing nations generally.

In a 2004 interview with Italian journalist Giuseppe De Carli, he said: "If European nations want to maintain their high standards of living, they can't ignore Africa. They can't just complain about immigration, and they can't pretend to live in splendid isolation ... What do we African bishops ask? An increase in ethics and morality. We ask this of the political class of the West. We ask that our agriculture not be strangled by miserable prices, that competition be fair and equitable, and that Africa not be submerged by debt. We ask the Western powers to stop assisting the inept governments on our continent, the incapable or dishonest politicians."

In other words, Turkson blends what would strike most Westerners as "conservative" and "liberal" positions, if they correspond with what he perceives as the realities on the ground.

A black pope?

In February 2010, I interviewed Turkson in his Vatican office. (It was a day Romans will remember, since the city was gripped by a rare snowstorm.) Like many journalists before and since, I wanted to pop the question about a black pope. Worried that he might be sick of talking about it, I sort of floundered around, trying to back into the subject.

In the end, Turkson saved me from myself. Here's how our exchange went, which I published at the time:

Q: Have you had to learn to speak differently because of intense media attention here?

Turkson: Definitely. I've had to pick up a certain amount of circumspection. Sometimes I'll say things as a joke, but in the reporting the smile doesn't get presented. I've taught myself a small lesson about that.

I still approach this with a certain amount of, not innocence, but truthfulness. Of course, I could just give noncommittal statements, and in the end, you can't pin anything on me, but I've also said nothing. I've decided not to do that. I prefer to say what I want to say, and run the risk of having it taken out of context.

The other day, for instance, somebody asked me about a black pope. I told him that obviously anybody who becomes a priest can become a bishop, a cardinal, whatever. But I also said point-blank that unfortunately, our world today is too color-sensitive. This is the truth. Somebody could report that in a way that makes me sound racist, which would be unfortunate, but I think the truth needs to be said. When it comes to a black pope, a lot of people say it doesn't matter, but the truth is that it would matter a lot.

Is a black pope more or less likely because of that racial sensitivity?

I can't say what the cardinals might be thinking, but I can say this: I wouldn't want to be that first black pope. I think he'll have a rough time.

That was Turkson back in 2010. After the week he's had, one wonders if he still feels the same way.

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