This time around, the demographic argument in favor of a non-European pope is hard to ignore. In the eight years of Benedict’s papacy alone, the number of Catholics in Africa grew by twenty-one per cent and the number of priests by sixteen per cent. In Europe, on the other hand, the number of Catholics has plummeted to such an extent that it is no longer the most Catholic region in the world, both in terms of the number of faithful and percentage of the population. The election of Turkson by the College of Cardinals, most of whom still come from Europe, would be clear acknowledgment that the leadership of the Church has to reflect this shifting center of gravity. The past of the Catholic Church is in Europe, and its future is in Africa and Asia.
For me, as a (non-Catholic) professor teaching African politics at the University of Notre Dame, this is an immensely teachable moment. Once, Pope Alexander VI used his authority to help divide the world for colonial conquest. Now the Church is considering a man for the papacy who was born a subject of the British colony of the Gold Coast. There is a clear sense of the wheel turning around.
On a more individual level, Turkson has a compelling personal story. Born into a poor family, the son of a carpenter, he played in a funk and Afro-beat band when he was younger. To support himself as a seminary student in New York City in the nineteen-seventies, Turkson worked as a cleaner, and was almost arrested by police officers who did not believe he was supposed to be in a bank at night.
Turkson is a natural communicator with an informal style, doing television interviews in his black priestly garb rather than the scarlet cassock of a cardinal. This is consistent with his largely pastoral background, one spent dealing with the faithful rather than the machinery of the Vatican. He is young (for a cardinal) and technology-friendly, reportedly owning an iPod and iPad. He speaksseven languages and likes to joke with people in their native tongues. As evidence of his attempt to reach younger Catholics, Turkson is due to speak at the University of Notre Dame on March 3rd. (He is not unique in this regard; his primary rival, Cardinal Scola, had been scheduled to speak at Notre Dame last Saturday.)
Both because of his personality and the potential for a historic milestone, some journalists have taken to calling this papal election an “Obama moment” for the Church. This metaphor is apt only insofar as both will disappoint liberals hoping for significant change. Where Obama positioned himself as a cautious reformer, Turkson is openly conservative. He will not lessen opposition to gay marriage or undo the directive stating that men with “deeply rooted homosexual tendencies” should not be ordained as priests. On the contrary, Turkson has defended anti-gay legislation in Africa and argued that “alternative lifestyles” should not be considered human rights. When asked about the possibility that the priestly sex scandal could spread to Africa, he replied this was unlikely because African culture discourages homosexuality. Here Turkson makes the conservative argument that blames gay priests, rather than celibacy or a lack of institutional safeguards, for the sexual abuse of children by the clergy. In doing so he ignores not only the results of a United States Bishops’ investigation, which found no support for this position, but also serious reports of African nuns being sexually abused by priests as well.
Similarly, there is no reason to expect shifts on abortion, birth control, or the ordination of women should Turkson become Pope. He does not deviate from the party line even on topics where a variety of positions are theologically permissible, such as the end of clerical celibacy. These views should not come as a surprise, however. All of the current cardinals were selected by the last two Popes, and so share a common conservative outlook and support for the status quo.
Although Turkson is unlikely to spearhead significant doctrinal change in the Church, his selection would change the style of the papacy. Where Pope Benedict is scholarly, elderly, and aloof, Turkson is younger and more plainspoken, although still a Biblical scholar in his own right. He will likely travel around the world evangelizing vigorously, perhaps resuming the large stadium masses characteristic of a younger Pope John Paul II. To better reach his audience, he may communicate less in Latin (although the papal Twitter account is unlikely to change), and make greater use of local languages.
In speaking to the world he is likely to emphasize issues of economic justice, a topic that plays well in developing countries. Last year, he gained attention for being the top signatory on a document criticizing neoliberal economic policies and calling for a “true world political authority” to regulate the global economy. It would be a mistake, however, to read him as a social progressive. Only in America do Catholic conservatives embrace Ayn Rand; elsewhere they tend to follow Pope John Paul II, who was staunchly critical of what he saw as the shortcomings of capitalism.
He will likely make an incremental change to the official policy on condoms, having indicated a willingness to consider the use of condoms to save lives (not for contraception) within married couples if one partner is H.I.V.-positive. This is consistent with Pope Benedict’s position that condoms are permissible to prevent disease, but it is not a position that the Church has taken yet.
Turkson has positioned himself as an ecumenical figure, making reference to his Methodist mother and Muslim uncle. He will continue the Catholic dialogue with other Christian dominations, and, if Uganda’s John Sentamu becomes the Archbishop of Canterbury, this will at least produce some nice photo opportunities. I expect he would also make symbolic gestures to Muslims and Jews. It will be difficult to improve relations with Islamic countries, already damaged by a speech Benedict gave in Regensburg, and Turkson may face additional obstacles of his own making. He has claimed that theological dialogue with the Islamic world is impossible and caused offense by showing an anti-Islamic YouTube video at an official gathering. It is worth noting that he may be the first cardinal to get into trouble for infelicitous use of YouTube—itself a notable achievement.
Should he become Pope, Turkson will also face other serious challenges, ones with the potential to define his legacy more than the issues already discussed. It is not clear if the current strategy of ignoring sex-abuse scandals is tenable, especially if national governments become more aggressive about investigating and indicting church officials. Closer to home, the next Pope will have to reform the Vatican bank, an institution which has been wracked with scandal since the nineteen-eighties. The fact that Turkson is an outsider to this mess may prove an asset or a hindrance, but either way it will prove no small problem. Whether one believes the most sensational reports of Vatican intrigue or not, it is clear that the bureaucracy will need to be reined in.
In some ways, his biggest challenge may be that of South-South relations. If Europe is the Church’s past and Africa its future, then Latin America is its present. A demographic argument should lead to a Latin American Pope, since the region is home to over forty per cent of all Catholics, more than any other area in the world. It is rumored that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of Argentina, finished second to Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005, and it may cause problems if Latin America is passed over a second time. While the Church remains strong in Latin America, it faces increasing competition from evangelical movements on the one side and increased secularism on the other. It also has scandals of its own to deal with, including the legacy of the late Father Marcial Maciel, the charismatic founder of the Legionaries of Christ who not only fathered children but has been accused of raping them as well. If these are not handled well, they could damage the Church’s reputation in the region, as has already happened in Europe.
As of now, this is all speculation. There are other strong candidates for the job: Italy’s Cardinal Scola runs a close second to Turkson in papal betting, and of course the cardinals may decide to ignore demographic arguments yet once more. In 2010, Cardinal Turkson said, “I wouldn’t want to be… [the] first black pope. I think he’ll have a rough time.” For this he was considered unambitious. Two years later, his critics now say the opposite, that he is too eager to get the job, and therefore insufficiently modest to deserve it. When a puff of white smoke comes out of the Sistine Chapel chimney, the world will learn if the cardinals see a black pope as the future of the Catholic Church.
Naunihal Singh is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.