Peter Turkson, the cardinal behind Pope Francis’ climate change push

By Scott Detrow | 05/15/2015 08:23 AM EDT

Pope Francis’ coming encyclical on climate change — the first-ever high-level papal document focused solely on the environment — won’t be published until June, at the earliest. But the Vatican has been sprinkling out clues about the encyclical’s contents for the last three months. They come in the form of speeches delivered by a charismatic Ghanaian cardinal once viewed as the odds-on favorite to become the first black man to head the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis’ coming encyclical on climate change — the first-ever high-level papal document focused solely on the environment — won’t be published until June, at the earliest.

But the Vatican has been sprinkling out clues about the encyclical’s contents for the last three months. They come in the form of speeches delivered by a charismatic Ghanaian cardinal once viewed as the odds-on favorite to become the first black man to head the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Peter Turkson is the president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, an entity that Anthony Annett, a climate change and sustainable development adviser at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, described as "a very small office with a very large mandate." The council played a key role in drafting the encyclical, and the series of speeches Turkson has been delivering since March has been viewed as the Vatican’s attempt to lay the groundwork for a document that has already generated headlines around the world.

Cardinal Peter Turkson
Cardinal Peter Turkson. | Photo courtesy of the Vatican Press Office.

Understanding the speeches — and the priorities of the man delivering them — is key to understanding the encyclical Francis hopes will help shape the United Nations’ upcoming climate change negotiations.

"I wouldn’t describe Turkson as [Francis’] right-hand man," said John Allen Jr., an associate editor for The Boston Globe and its Catholic Church-focused website, called Crux. "But I would say he is someone the pope trusts, and his role has taken on new importance."

That wasn’t always the case. "His importance has changed," said Allen, who closely follows the Vatican. "He’s a good example of a guy whose career really seemed to be in decline during the [Pope] Benedict years, both because he was seen as a little too progressive for the views that were in favor then, and also because he had done a couple things publicly to embarrass himself."

Despite that, Turkson was Irish bookmakers’ favorite to become pope, when Benedict XVI made his shocking decision to step down in 2013. Turkson captured the media’s attention as the potential "first black pope."

‘Voice for the developing world’

Turkson was born in the southwest corner of Ghana in 1948. He was ordained in 1975 and received part of his education in upstate New York. After working in a variety of educational roles, he was appointed archbishop of Cape Coast, in southern Ghana, in 1992. In 2003, he became the first Ghanaian elevated to the position of cardinal, and, after he helped spearhead the church’s efforts at African outreach, Benedict nominated him to his current position as the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 2009.

"He’s informed very much by his roots — by the problems of poverty, AIDS and environmental devastation in West Africa," Annett said.

"I do think his self-image is very strongly as a voice for the developing world," added Allen. "He’s extremely conscious that two-thirds of the 1.3 billion Catholics in the world live outside the Western developing world. He sees Africa, in particular, as the future of Catholicism, and he’s interested in leading that charge."

Turkson’s focus on social justice issues puts him on the more liberal end of the spectrum, as far as the Catholic Church’s hierarchy is concerned. "He’s pretty radical on a lot of peace and justice stuff — start him talking about capitalism, and he’s going to sound like Noam Chomsky," said Allen.

"As global society increasingly defines itself by consumerist and monetary values," Turkson said last month, "the privileged in turn become increasingly numb to the cries of the poor."

The council Turkson heads tackles those issues on a daily basis. "Think of it as a department within the Vatican that handles issues of global economic affairs, justice, peace, all these kinds of social and economic issues in the world," Annett said — in other words, the type of issues that Francis has made the centerpiece of his papacy.

But a liberal cardinal is still pretty conservative in the grand scheme of things, and Turkson has generated anger from some corners for comments seen as equating homosexuality to pedophilia in an interview with CNN, and questioning whether gay rights should be viewed as basic human rights, as reported in a National Catholic Register article.

Turkson also upset the secular HIV/AIDS community by sticking to Church doctrine on contraception, and declining to endorse condom use as an effective tool in the fight against sub-Saharan Africa’s devastating AIDS pandemic.

And, in 2012, Turkson screened a controversial, inflammatory video about Europe’s growing Muslim population during a gathering of church officials. The decision generated negative headlines, and Turkson apologized soon afterward.

But less than six months later, he found himself in the mix as a potential pope in the run-up to the conclave to select Benedict’s successor. The attention was due mostly to pent-up desire for a pontiff from outside of Europe, which, of course, the conclave eventually delivered on, selecting Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina.

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman even showed up in Rome to try and give Turkson’s candidacy a boost, said a New York Daily News article. (Rodman’s support, which was part of a public relations stunt, didn’t go too far, though. When asked whom he was there to support, Rodman said he was backing the guy "from Africa, right?")

Again, Turkson harmed himself, when he was seen as campaigning for the job in a series of media interviews. Allen said detractors even posted mocking campaign posters around the Vatican.

Losing the papacy, but shaping a new issue

But as Francis breathed life into the papacy by focusing on basic social justice issues like helping the poor, Turkson has found himself playing a key role in shaping the Vatican’s message on climate change and other issues. Annett said he sees similarities between the two men. "I’m not sure how close he is to Francis — I just don’t know — but I believe their outlooks, in terms of a humble church for the poor, are very much aligned."

And as Francis has prioritized climate change as an issue on which he wants to assert the church’s moral authority, he has turned to Turkson to help craft, and then set the stage for, the key document aimed at influencing Catholics around the world.

Turkson has delivered three speeches previewing the encyclical in recent months: a March lecture at an Irish seminary, a keynote address at an April Vatican conference that included U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and a speech yesterday at a gathering of Catholic relief groups.

Several themes emerge. The first is that the modern global economy is consuming natural resources at an unsustainable rate that is harming the environment and, just as importantly, threatening the poor.

"Today, the ever-accelerating burning of fossil fuels that powers our economic engine is disrupting the Earth’s delicate ecological balance on almost-unfathomable scale," Turkson said in April. "In our recklessness, we are traversing some of the planet’s most fundamental natural boundaries."

Turkson, like Francis, highlighted the December U.N. meetings as a potential key turning point for this trend and said "citizens of wealthier countries … have a special obligation" to lead the effort to rein in carbon dioxide emissions.

"The wealthiest countries, the ones who have benefited most from fossil fuels, are morally obligated to push forward and find solutions to climate-related change and so protect the environment and human life," he said. "They are obligated both to reduce their own carbon emissions and to help protect poorer countries from the disasters caused or exacerbated by the excesses of industrialization."

Focus on humanity, not just politics or economics

While political statements like that one have generated the most attention, Turkson’s speeches are packed with theological arguments. The encyclical "is going to be a theological argument that has political and economic consequences," said Vincent Miller, a theology professor at the University of Dayton. "These are rooted in ancient biblical principles … this is going to be a statement that’s clearly on the turf of the teaching authority of the pope, and within the realm of what the church talks about."

Turkson’s speeches reference statements made by Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Paul VI, as well as the teachings of St. Francis and the prophet Isaiah.

The references don’t surprise Annett. "The nature of encyclicals, the way they’re written, is that they’re very much documents of tradition. If you read an encyclical, you’ll find it goes to painstaking lengths to quote previous teachings, to quote previous quotes," Annett said. He said one "fair analogy" is to compare them to U.S. Supreme Court decisions, which typically base their rulings on precedents set by previous judges, as well as founding documents like the Constitution.

One Bible verse Turkson referenced repeatedly: Genesis 2:15, which reads that humans were placed in Eden "to till it and keep it."

"It is blatantly clear that we have ’tilled too much’ and ‘kept too little,’" said Turkson in April. "Our relationship with the Creator; with our neighbor, especially the poor; and with the environment has become fundamentally ‘unkept.’ We must move away from this mode of behavior, and instead become more protective, more ‘keeping.’"

Miller sees the talk of a three-way symbiotic relationship as part of a key aspect of the coming encyclical: an idea of "integral ecology," to which Turkson devoted most of his March speech. The basic argument: that there is a mutual connection between humans, the Earth and God, and that there is a moral responsibility to care for the environment.

The phrase is a direct reference to a key tenet of Catholic social teaching, called integral development. First presented by Paul VI, it argues that development that only focuses on economics or politics — and not humanity — is not complete. "It looks to me like a clear development of something that’s been present in previous encyclicals and directed specifically at the moral challenge for the ecological challenge we face," Miller said.

Turkson and Francis clearly hope that U.N. negotiators include that moral element in their upcoming negotiations. "Without moral conversion and change of hearts," he said yesterday, "even good regulations, policies and targets in the world are unlikely to prove effective."