Would the curia really be ready for an African pope?
While news media throughout the world continue to speculate about the possibility of a “first black pope,” only very few stories bother to add the qualifier “in modern history” or “in more than 1,500 years.” If you’re curious, the leading historian of African American Catholic history, Benedictine Brother Cyprian Davis of St. Meinrad School of Theology, provides a helpful overview of the three African popes we have had so far: St. Victor I (ca. 186-198), Pope St. Miltiades (311-14), and Pope St. Gelasius (492-496).
Although most Vaticanistas would beg to differ, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana (with 5:2 odds) is still in first place at the Irish betting site Paddy Power. But even if he’s not the overall front-runner and John Allen in today’s “Papabile of the Day” piece promotes another African cardinal “with far more Roman seasoning,” most observers still see Turkson as the African candidate most likely to have a chance.
When the U.S. Catholic team interviewed Turkson three years ago, we certainly found him to be refreshingly engaging, open, and to some degree undiplomatically frank. He didn’t strike us as very “Roman” at all. Of course, that may have changed by now, since at the time we talked with him at DePaul University in Chicago, he was only four months into his tenure as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
During our interview, Turkson wasn’t shy about discussing some of the less than welcoming attitudes he had experienced during his first few months as an African leading a department of the Roman Curia. While reluctant to speak of racism, he certainly seemed to have experienced some attitudes of cultural superiority from European and American church officials. He mentioned those who “may doubt my competency” and who “sometimes act like they think people in Africa are still living in trees.”
It certainly makes one wonder how well the curia would collaborate with an African pope. In any case, it’s worth listening in on this exchange from our interview, recorded in April 2010:
Q: You are currently the highest-ranking African cardinal in the Roman Curia. How would you describe the state of racial justice within the church?
Turkson: I’m reluctant to equate lack of knowledge and familiarity between Europeans and Africans with racism. Often it’s not racism; it’s just that people don’t know much about each other.
Europeans and Americans sometimes act like they think people in Africa are still living in trees. Maybe that’s from what they’ve seen in movies. People tell me that they don’t know much about Ghana or Africa.
Everyone is a product of their own culture. Many of the people I work with in the Vatican are sons and daughters of European and other cultures and they may not have been exposed much to Africa.
I know that many people’s ideas about Africa and Africans are generally negative. The competence and abilities of Africans are often doubted. This is challenging, and I need to prove myself capable of creditably leading and administering this vital office of the Vatican: the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace.
This does not make me angry. I view it as a kind of ministry to help them overcome certain blind spots they have due to a lack of exposure. But, again, I would not call this racism.
Q: Aren’t you being generous here? Isn’t there a fine line between unfamiliarity and willful ignorance or racism?
Turkson: No, racism is a pursued policy, a program or line of action. It puts people in boxes and categories so you no longer see reality but only what you want to see. It’s more intentional.
In general I hesitate to describe manifestations of this unfamiliarity as intentional. I’ll give people the benefit of the doubt, but if this attitude persists, then maybe I’ll need to respond to your question differently.
Still, just as some may doubt my competence, many others believe I will make a positive contribution in Rome.
Flickr photo cc by Catholic Church (England and Wales)