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Is Cardinal Turkson out?

Cardinal Peter Turkson in 2017. Credit: Richter Frank-Jurgen via Flickr.

Rumors started circulating around Rome Thursday night that Cardinal Peter Turkson had resigned as prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, a department only created by Pope Francis in 2017.

Friday morning, the news seemed to solidify that Turkson had offered his resignation, most likely after a meeting with the pope on Dec. 11 — nearly the point at which Turkson would have served five years in his job, the minimum Vatican term.

Turkson’s department has had teething troubles since it was created by the merger of several former pontifical councils just a few years ago. Most especially, it has been singled out by curial officials as a big-spending department, even at a time when everyone in the Vatican is looking to tighten their belts. If the dicastery’s budget isn’t out of control, curial officials have told The Pillar, it is not entirely under control either — a difficult situation while the pope is ordering curia-wide pay cuts.

The department has long been thought to have the unquestioned support of Pope Francis, who created it in 2017, charging it with overseeing “issues regarding migrants, those in need, the sick, the excluded and marginalized, the imprisoned and the unemployed, as well as victims of armed conflict, natural disasters, and all forms of slavery and torture.”

Francis even took the unusual step of reserving oversight of the department’s second section, which handles issues of migrants and refugees, to himself personally, and promoted its leader and the department’s under-secretary Michael Czerny SJ to the rank of cardinal in 2019.

But Turkson’s resignation would come after Pope Francis ordered an apostolic visitation — a kind of operational audit —  of the dicastery in June.

The visitation was conducted by Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, who, we are left to assume, must have offered an unfavorable assessment of what he found, and prompted Turkson’s apparent decision to step aside.

It remains to be seen whom the pope will pick to replace Turkson, or even if he will fill the role at all.

The Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development is one of several major departments to receive an apostolic visitation — something like a formal papal audit — this year. Although it is normal enough for the pope to order visitations for dioceses in trouble, until the last 18 months, it was unheard of for a pope to, effectively, order a special assessment of his own departments.

In addition to demands for curial cost-cutting, there is also lurking an always-almost-ready-never-actually-published new apostolic constitution on the Roman curia. Praedicate evangelium has been in the works for almost the whole of Francis’ pontificate, and is intended to be a signature reform, reordering the geography and pecking order of all Vatican departments.

With new drafts of the document circulated seemingly every year, it is entirely possible that Turkson’s young department could be combined again, or even split back up under any pending reforms.

It also remains to be seen if Francis intends to find another role for Turkson.

The 73-year old cardinal is still of working age, and he was the only African cardinal left in a senior Vatican role, after the pope accepted the resignation of Cardinal Sarah before ordering a similar visitation at the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments earlier this year.

Turkson is also one of the last cardinals created by John Paul II to maintain a position in the Vatican: While some of the men he was made cardinal with in 2003 remain as diocesan bishops, only he and the Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet remain as active in-post “JPII cardinals” in the Roman curia — and is seen by some as a kind of curial institution all of his own.

Even while Turkson has been sometimes pegged as an economic “progressive,” he has also been an at-times outspoken defender of the Church’s sexual morality, and opposed “ideological colonization” in Africa on sexual and social issues. When Pope Benedict resigned in 2013, Turkson, who was then only 65, was widely regarded as a possible papal candidate. On the other hand, the cardinal made headlines just months ago, when he told Axios in October that it would be wrong for U.S. President Joe Biden to be denied Holy Communion.

The cardinal’s rumored resignation could add to the list of curial figures Francis will soon need to replace — a list which also includes Ouellett, and also Cardinal Luis Ladaria Ferrer, Francis own appointment as head of the CDF; both cardinals are now 77.

There is not yet confirmation of the reports about Turkson’s resignation, and may be none until after the New Year. But if there is any truth to the rumors, the Ghanian Cardinal Turkson will certainly be on Pope Francis’ mind over the Christmas octave.

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