VATICAN CITY – A prominent African cardinal said Monday there was no reason why the next pope couldn't be black, particularly following the election of President Barack Obama.
Cardinal Peter Kodwo Appiah Turkson of Ghana is playing an important role in guiding a three-week meeting at the Vatican on the challenges of the Catholic Church in Africa.
At a news conference Monday, Turkson was asked whether he thought the time was right for a black pope, especially in light of Obama's election.
"Why not?" Turkson replied. He argued that every man who agrees to be ordained a priest has to be willing to be a pope, and is given training along the way as bishop and cardinal. "All of that is part of the package."
He also noted that former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was from Ghana.
"He had problems, but he still did it," Turkson said. "And now it is Obama of the United States. And if by divine providence — because the church belongs to God — if God would wish to see a black man also as pope, thanks be to God!"
Speculation about the possibility of a pope from the developing world has swirled for years, as that is where the Catholic Church is growing most: In Africa, between 1978 and 2007, the number of Catholics grew from 55 million to 146 million. By contrast, Catholic communities in Europe are in decline.
In 1978, the Polish-born Pope John Paul II became the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. Cardinals followed in 2005 by electing German-born Pope Benedict XVI.
Whether the European-heavy College of Cardinals will look outside Europe for Benedict's successor is an open question. Benedict enjoys good health at 82, and there are no signs the job will become open soon.
But Turkson may well be in the running when the time comes. The 60-year-old archbishop of Cape Coast, Ghana, was appointed by Benedict to be the relator, or key discussion leader, of the synod on Africa.
It's a high-profile position — important for letting cardinals get to know prelates from regions other than their own.
During the press conference Monday, he was deft in handling delicate questions about the church in Africa, including one about priests who stray from their vows of celibacy and live openly with women.
"I might say I knew that question would come up," he quipped.
He said the matter was not something to hide or be ashamed of. Rather, he said, the aim should be to help priests who are struggling and support them in living out their vows.
Turkson also was asked about the Catholic Church's position on the use of condoms as a way to fight HIV, which has ravaged the continent. The Vatican opposes condoms, as well as any form of artificial birth control. Critics say the church's position has only worsened the HIV problem.
Turkson didn't rule out condoms outright, suggesting they could be useful in a situation of a married, faithful couple where one partner is infected.
But he said the quality of condoms in Africa is poor, and can engender false confidence. He said abstinence and fidelity were the key to fighting the epidemic, along with refraining from sex if infected.
He also said the money being spent on condoms would be better spent providing anti-retroviral drugs to those already infected.
"Let's talk clearly," he said. "We're talking about a product of a factory, and there are different qualities. There are condoms that arrive in Ghana which in the heat will burst during sex. And when that is the case, then it gives a false sense of security which rather facilitates the spread of HIV/AIDs. And when that is the case, we are reluctant — even in the case of conjugal relations of people who are faithful," to suggest condom use as a way of preventing AIDS.