Pope Francis’s Africa problem

Maybe Peter Cardinal Turkson really did need to go, but it isn’t clear why.

Cardinal Peter Turkson in a May 25, 2021, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

After his Christmas greetings to the leprous Roman curia – and it was pretty much right after – Pope Francis let one of his longest-serving curial hands go rather unceremoniously. The departure of Peter Kodwo Appiah Cardinal Turkson from the prefect’s chair in the Dicastery for the Promotion of Integral Human Development had been rumored for a good while, and the mill had been buzzing for a week before the announcement from the Holy See’s press office made it official on Thursday, December 23rd.

At the end of the first five years of activity with statutes ad experimentum and following the results of the evaluation visit carried out last summer, the superiors of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development have placed their mandates in the hands of the Supreme Pontiff.” Only, the five years of operation under “experimental” statutes weren’t quite up. Francis, in other words, couldn’t wait another week to make the announcement.

Blase Cardinal Cupich of Chicago conducted the audit of Turkson’s erstwhile mega-shop over the summer, by the way, and it must’ve been a doozy.

While he sincerely thanks Card. Peter K. Appiah Turkson and his collaborators for the service carried out and pending the appointment of the new board,” the Vatican’s statement on Thursday continued, “the Holy Father has entrusted ad interim the ordinary management of the same Dicastery starting from 1 January 2022 to Card. Michael Czerny SJ as Prefect and to Sister Alessandra Smerilli FMA as Secretary.”

Whatever else Turkson’s departure itself signals, it certainly means that Pope Francis has an Africa problem. Actually, he’s had an Africa problem for a good while, now. The departure of Cardinal Turkson just makes it unavoidably obvious. The short of it is that the Church in Africa hasn’t really stayed on script during Francis’s pontificate.

In 2018’s synod on young people, Western prelates’ concerns were – to put it bluntly – mostly of the marketing variety, and mostly desperate: How do we keep the few young people we have from abandoning ship? African Church leaders had much the opposite problem. “My churches are all bursting,” Bishop Andrew Nkea Fuanya of Mamfe, Cameroon, told reporters during one briefing. “I don’t have space to keep the young people,” he said.

He wasn’t the only one to report such problems, either.

The African prelates’ success with confident preaching and insistence on the Church’s “hard” teachings as evangelical “selling points” don’t seem to have taken with their brethren from areas where Christianity as a social and cultural force appears to be on its last legs.

Perhaps the most glaring example of insiders’ frustration with African Church leaders came from Walter Cardinal Kasper in 2014, during the first synod on the family. A small group of scribblers caught up with Cardinal Kasper outside the synod hall. Something between and informal gaggle and an impromptu press conference ensued. Among other things, Kasper said that African prelates “should not tell us too much what we have to do.”

One of the journos was the veteran Vatican beat reporter, Ed Pentin, who recorded the conversation. Cardinal Kasper first denied the remarks. When Pentin produced the recording, he said his remarks were not a formal interview, and complained of being unfairly attacked by a reporter who stubbornly insisted on quoting him accurately. The controversy faded, as they do. The problem didn’t disappear, though.

Cardinal Turkson’s abrupt departure hasn’t helped Pope Francis’s Africa problem in the short term. Maybe Turkson really did need to go, but it isn’t clear why.

Heads of curial departments aren’t supposed to do much, except be there. Secretaries run the operations day-to-day. The prefects and presidents are the faces of their operations. They are more important as reference points for outsiders – ecclesiastical and civil – with business in Rome.

While he held office in the curia, Cardinal Turkson was a highly placed contact for African figures – prelates, politicians, and others – who had business in town. Until recently, Francophone Africa had Robert Cardinal Sarah in the Congregation for Divine Worship. People visiting Rome from Lusophone African countries haven’t always had a Portuguese-speaking go-to figure. As a thumb rule, however, both French and English-speaking Africa have had someone.

The Roman curia has a twofold purpose. Practically, the body assists the pope in governing the universal Church. Symbolically, it represents the universal Church to the pope and to the Church herself. That second, symbolic purpose is relatively new and largely unwritten, but over the last several decades it has become pretty standard and expected.

There aren’t enough senior offices in the bureaucracy to allow representation by country, but continental representation has been generally secured at the highest – most symbolic and least practical – echelon. There are plenty of Italians in top curial jobs, several North and South Americans. Australia is currently unrepresented at the tippety-top level of curial administration, but there is some ready accounting for that.

Pope Francis recently appointed Archbishop Lazarus You Hueng-sik to head the Congregation for Clergy – the first Korean to lead a curial department – while Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle of Manila has the behemoth Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (though Francis recently put that outfit under a commissar).

The Farrell brothers – Bishop Brian, secretary to the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Cardinal Kevin, Prefect of the Congregation for Laity, Family, and Life (another super-dicastery cobbled together from different offices) – may represent both Ireland and the United States. With the departure of Cardinal Turkson, Mrs. Farrell has given birth to more top curial officials than the entire continent of Africa.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 163 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.

32 Comments

  1. Notwithstanding Kasper’s condescension, the Church will be saved by Africa and India. Whatever is left after this ruinous papacy will need the likes of Sarah to rebuild the Church on the foundation of truth, rather than the ever-changing whim of western progressivism. May that day come soon … with Cupich and his cronies relegated to the dustbin of history.

  2. Another example of the lopsided Bergolian Papacy is this: in Germany – a single country in what is now the apostate EU – the number of regularly-practicing Catholics is a distinct minority (and that’s being very generous). In the entire continent of Africa, the number of devout, regularly practicing Catholics is huge (I remember serving as deacon at Sunday Mass in Uganda’s capital Kampala a few years back where there were so many people that administering the Eucharist took 30 minutes).

    And now for the lopsidedness: the number of German Cardinals is overwhelmingly disproportionate to those of the Cardinals from Africa when you consider the number of practicing Catholics. In fact, if Cardinalture was truly representative, Germany would barely warrant one Cardinal. But we know that the Bergolian Papacy has a distinct bias in favor of heterodox ecclesiology over that of orthodox faith. It’s a mighty good thing that most faithful Catholics place their faith in Christ and not in the Bergolian Papacy.

  3. St. Augustine was from Africa. What an embarrassment to modernday Germania. Augustine’s answer to the demise of Rome was not to blend sysnodally into the wallpaper, but instead, “The City of God.”

    And, at his time there were some 250 bishops and dioceses in North Africa (most the size of today’s parishes). This was also the time of the Donatist heresy when in most such diocese there was a shadow church with it’s own schismatic Donatist bishop. Augustine and the Church dealt with that. (Then along came the Islamic invasion of the 6th and 7th centuries and the not a single diocese remained.)

    But, along the way, and of the schismatic Donatists, Augustine wrote:
    “Why did you separate? Why perish in the sacrilege of this accused schism? You are all equally guilty and criminal; not so much by reason of the crimes committed by some among you—crimes which some commit but which others condemn; but you are all guilty of the crime of schism; from that appalling sacrilege none of you can pretend that he is free so long as he refuses to enter into communion with the Unity of all nations—unless, of course, you prefer to say that Christ lied in what He said of the Church spread throughout all the nations of the world (Luke 24:47).”

    (Lk 24:47–“And that repentance and remission of sins [The sin thing! And repentance! And real mercy!] should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”)

    • Should read 7th and 8th centuries (instead of 6th and 7th centuries).
      In 633 A.D. (7th century) Islam went beyond Arabia—-to Damascus, Jerusalem, all of Syria, Egypt and Armenia, the Persian Empire, and within a total of only thirty years even Afghanistan and most of the Punjab. . . and by 711 A.D. (8th century) occupied the entire coast of North Africa and invaded Spain; finally in 732 A.D. the early Islamic invasion was stopped by Charles Martel in France.

  4. Best line of waning 2021, “Mrs. Farrell has given birth to more top curial officials than the entire continent of Africa” (Altieri).
    That said, from experience as layman and priest seminary lecturer Africa the adage was African youth living on the edge were drawn to priesthood cause it insured 3 squares and a flop. Also, that aside the real picture was the fresh enthusiasm Malawi Mchinji National Seminary had to move the following year to Zomba the ancient capital for greater student space. The young men I taught from thatched roofed villages were spiritual, eager Christians. Later as a priest Arusha Tanzania much of the same. A vibrant growing Church in Africa. Problems yes [tribalism a real issue] the number seeking subsistence much smaller than the many seeking Christ.
    I’ll end [at length] with the flame that ignited the African fire of faith. At Mchinji two French Missionaries of Africa [formerly White Fathers] settled in the remote bush of Mchinji with the dream of establishing a seminary. Both died of malaria within a year of each other. Their story was discovered in the dreamed seminary by rector Fr Kamanga in the archives. Later that year after my return to the US Kamanga wrote that the student enrollees was far above Mchinji’s capacity. I still receive word from former students at the more recent Arusha Spiritan [Holy Ghost Fathers] seminary some serving in dangerous missions like Pemba, a mostly Muslim island with a few Catholics.
    Turkson, Sarah are eminent in the eyes of Our Lord, if not in the eyes of the occupant of the Chair of Peter. Africa producing martyr priests who abandoned paganism, are adverse, even hostile to the new paganism infecting the West seem the hope of the Catholic Christianity [not the leprous form fomenting in Germany, and elsewhere], rather the true form of serving Christ.

  5. I don’t really know much about the internal goings on of the upper hierarchy of the church, so I don’t feel qualified to comment on the rightness of the decision to keep or release Cardinal Turkson. However, I am a parent and catholic; neither democrat nor republican; with probably no place to lie my head with either hard-line brutal traditionalists (at least as they are depicted – but quite probably not as they really are) – nor with hard line liberals (?) who have redefined good and bad, and who punish the new “wicked,” meaning anyone who disagrees with them. I AM a MOM, a teacher, and a catholic. I see kids with dog collars wrapped around their throats, and heavy locks hanging from their ears. I see innocence, at it’s earliest ages, daily – deliberately bullied, harrassed, intimidated, mocked, lied to, and cynically taken down. And oh, how I could go on…. I keep thinking of that crowd in Poland with John Paul II, and I say – I pray with them: “We want God!” Defend our Children. “We want God.” Defend our Children. And I thank Africa for its truth, and its efforts to do so. I thank Africa and I call upon the Pope, the Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Catechists, Laity, and indeed, the whole human community: “We want God!” Defend our Children! And to continue to abandon them to the forces that make for a living hell; is surely, at least for those who know – a grave crime. Amen.

    • Well said, Sheri. Unfortunately, the efforts of Pope Francis to makes us more Christ-like are being hampered by progressives who want us to accommodate some secular values, and some recalcitrant tradionalists who want to hold us back refusing to take the Church out into today’s world.

  6. “Pope Francis let one of his longest-serving curial hands go rather unceremoniously.”

    Is that so? How could it be done ceremoniously? Any hint? This African Cardinal was picked by Pope Francis to head an office as swell as to perform other important duties. He was there for five long years. He reached the age when Bishops tender their resignation, it was not abrupt. Retired bishops – and priests – are sometimes more active and useful after they have been released from official duties.
    There are lots of African Bishops – more the before. Many Africans, male and female, are in service at the Vatican.
    During his latest trip to Africa, millions came out to greet him. “Organisers said more than a million people gathered at a special open-air Mass in Madagascar. This was yet more evidence that the demographic axis of the Roman Catholic Church is shifting. The roar of the crowd when Pope Francis arrived on the outskirts of the capital, Antananarivo, would have been more fitting for a rock star than an 82-year-old cleric.”
    Our Pope does not have an African problem; some people have a Pope problem.

    • Mal writes (with his usual obliviousness) : “Our Pope does not have an African problem; some people have a Pope problem.”
      I wonder why anyone would have a Pope problem? Perhaps you could make some detailed comments here, please Mal, and other commenters can compare your comments with demonstrable realities.

      • “We all have a a Pope problems”. Is that so, mate? WE all? no, just a small fraction – and mostly in the west. You will have to prayerfully and truthfully deal with your problem

    • I would not call Madagascar typically African. The native population do not regard themselves as African as their ancestors came from Indonesia.

  7. A better headline would be “Pope F’s Catholic Problem.” He is the first pope who has managed to totally alienate faithful Catholics who would normally die defending the pope. He truly is a scandal.

    • Faithful Catholics are still with the Pope. Some western Catholics have refused to move with the Church as it is on the move everywhere.
      A few decades ago I was in a Church in Bombay – as it was then called – and the priest in his sermon told the worshippers that Catholic missionaries brought Jesus and his Church – not Westernism – to India. He said that they should be recognised as Christians not because they wear frocks and ties and eat pork but because of their faith. Unfortunately, some people cannot seperate cultural aspects of our faith from the substance.

      • “Some western Catholics have refused to move with the Church”…In what areas of faith and morals have these Catholics refused to move? Please cite some examples for this claim.

  8. It would be poetic justice if Francis is succeeded by an orthodox, conservative African who would then proceed to undo all his “reforms” and “innovations”, to the dismay of ze Germans, homosexualists and Pachamama worshippers.

  9. Turkson’s removal effectively reduces representation of ‘African’ Catholicism at the Vatican. First Things somewhat elaborated Kaspar’s 2014 comment that “African church leaders should not tell us too much what we have to do.”

    https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/10/dont-listen-to-the-africans-says-catholic-cardinal

    The Catholic faith has been on the rise in Africa. Is it the same faith as Rome’s? If Rome wants a passable synodal road through Africa, no corrupt, prideful, rigid, or traditional African prelate ought stand in the way.

  10. People in the know do not seem surprised that Cardinal Turkson tendered his resignation at the end of his 5 year term as the head of a department, a position he was appointed to by Pope Francis. According to cruxnow.com, “Turkson has been considered one of Pope Francis’s key allies in the Vatican, a leading exponent of pope’s core social and political priorities. Some observers believe Turkson’s star has dimmed of late, however, related to perceived problems of management in his department, and that Turkson himself has offered to step down because he’s “fed up” with internal disputes.” Earlier two important members resigned creating the impression that the department was having problems. Obviously, a revamping was necessary, and that is what is happening.
    There is belief that Cardinal Turkson, a strong ally of this Pope, will remain in the Vatican – though he might want to return to Ghana. Wherever he goes, I wish Cardinal Turkson all the best.

  11. I have lived under popes from Pius XII. Never in my lifetime has a Holy Father been so embraced by seculars, leftist-progressives and cultural radicals. Never has a Holy Father been so ambivalent in expression and obscure of pen, so imprudent in off-hand speech. That he is most often embraced by those who would de-construct the Church says all that needs to be said.

    His Africa problem may not be of race, but of culture. The African continent is unapologetically Catholic! They like the faith as it has been handed on and not as Amazonian false gods would have it.

    The Church, the USA, the EU (by extension the world) are in dire straits.

    • The Church, which has the Holy Spirit in charge, is not in dire straits though some people do project it as such. Even the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

    • Apostolic is not just the succession history but adherence to principles our faith is based on. “Who am I to judge” is not humility, it is a cultural fear of those essential beliefs that erodes our church.

  12. The Good Lord is wearing the watch, no fear really. Scary, but not fear, plus the Pro-Life movement in US is “amping” up. Watch what happens here, even though it returns to the States just the move is a sea-change: the universe moves slow but sure–I remember Kansas in 1969….

  13. Years ago I went to a conference and met a wonderful African Priest who was pastor of over 14 churches as the growth of the church is so great. He is in the second poorest place in the world and yet the church grows. When later in the scamdemic his Bishop was told to limit Mass size this wonderful Priest responded “well I will have to do many more Masses on Sunday so all can attend”. For those who are appalled with giving money to promote bad bishops via the collection plate consider sending money to Malawi. We have done so for years and are blessed to be prayed for by these brothers and sisters in faith. Many stories of what these funds do (although I have never asked how this Priest spends it) they literally save lives. The amount of work these Priests do is almost unimaginable as the numbers of faithful keep increasing. The average life span for men is 56 yet. The money is almost nonexistant. God is working in this country where He is wanted with a passion. BTW they are joyfilled and childlike.

    • It’s unbelievable the level of toxicity that is the previous comments, as well as most of the comments on this site. It made me want to respond to these comments. But I thought about it, and I remembered this gospel passage: “Don’t give dogs what is holy, and don’t throw your pearls before pigs” (Matthew 7:6)

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