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What happened to Cardinal Peter Turkson, who almost became Pope?

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It's a pretty safe bet that you’ve never heard of Peter Turkson. He’s currently a cardinal in the Catholic Church from Ghana.

He was appointed by Pope Emeritus Benedict in 2009 to serve as president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

Justice and peace are not his primary aim, however.

Turkson, 65, could very well have been the new pope. Some insist he almost was. It’s actually enough to keep you awake at night.

An arch conservative, Turkson had serious backing within the Vatican and would have been the first black man to become pontiff had he won the vote.

If you want to demonstrate your conservative credentials in the Catholic Church these days there is one issue above all that sets out your I’m-the-most-oppressive-of-all stall – your attitude toward the gays.

Turkson was near the top of the most conservative list of candidates for good reason. His attitude is straight out of the sixth century.

He has defended Uganda’s notorious “Kill the Gays” bill by saying that although the punishments for defying the law are a bit “exaggerated” – meaning those pesky life imprisonment or death sentences – the understandable desire of Ugandans to brutally persecute and execute gay people are simply traditional.

“The intensity of the reaction is probably commensurate with tradition,” he told the National Catholic Register.

This was the level of rhetoric that Benedict decided was ideal for a president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Tormenting, persecuting, imprisoning and even killing gays are just “traditional” cultural values, see. Why are you looking at me like that?

“Just as there’s a sense of a call for rights, there’s also a call to respect culture, of all kinds of people,” Turkson said. “So, if it’s being stigmatized, in fairness, it’s probably right to find out why it is being stigmatized.”

To underline his point Turkson openly scoffed at UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who addressed the African Union Summit and called on African nations to repeal the laws that criminalize homosexuality.

Ban Ki-moon has also called for an end to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It is the only way for African nations to embrace the ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he said.

But Turkson was having none of that warm fuzzy liberalism.

“The last thing we want to do is infringe upon the rights of anyone. But when you’re talking about what’s called ‘an alternative lifestyle,’ are those human rights? Ban Ki-moon needs to recognize there’s a subtle distinction between morality and human rights, and that’s what needs to be clarified,” he said.

In Turkson’s mind the question is, which one do you choose? Human rights means gays are free to live their lives safe from injury. But morality means gays can be harassed, menaced and locked up.

I can’t really see much subtlety between his two distinctions, frankly. Clearly Turkson doesn’t think you have a legal right to be gay. So what happens to you if you persist, even against his wishes, is really your own look out.

There are other telling controversies surrounding the cardinal. Africa has the highest rate of HIV transmission in the world, but Turkson has defended Pope Emeritus Benedict’s opinion that condoms should not be the solution to the decades-long epidemic. In 2009 Turkson said condoms actually gave Africans a false sense of security and are “helping the disease spread.”

To be clear, the use of condoms halts the spread of HIV. It does not spread it. Turkson is exactly wrong.

But instead of using condoms, he suggested abstinence and fidelity were wiser options. Never mind that the staggeringly high transmission rates prove that abstinence and fidelity are on few people’s 'to do' lists.

Turkson wasn’t picked in the end and the busy world moved on, but it’s worth remembering that his story is far from over. Things can turn around in an instant at the Vatican.

Just ask Pope Emeritus Benedict. In the long history of the church popes don’t resign. Cardinals can only be said to be free of their influence when they have passed on.

So it interests me how quickly the world seems to have forgotten Benedict. Even though he has retired to a suitably grand palazzo, his influence still flows freely.

Likewise, Turkson may have been muzzled in this go-around, but he hasn’t gone away you know.

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