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Cardinal Peter Turkson

“For developing countries, what Portugal is going through is normal”

Cardinal Peter Turkson grew up in simple circumstances in Ghana. Today he is one of the most influential men in the Vatican. In an interview with ECO123 he calls on Europe’s crisis states to reduce their demands.

Pope Francis criticises an “invisible tyranny of the markets” and speaks of a “new dance around the golden calf”. Isn’t that a bit exaggerated?

He is my superior, how could I contradict him? (laughs) But seriously: of course the Pope is right. We’ve been living with the financial crisis since 2008, and there is no sign of it disappearing soon. Rather, one nation after another is on its knees. How long are we going to keep watching?

Who is responsible for the crisis in your opinion?

I do not want to point a finger at specific banks or people. But it is clear that the financial crisis is not a natural catastrophe, like a tornado for example. Those responsible for the crisis are people who took decisions too short-sightedly and who wanted to make profits too quickly. Of course technical financial aspects also played a part, but this is above all a human and ethical crisis. It is about a lack of moral standards, and above all about greed.

What does the Vatican suggest in concrete terms?

A tax on financial transactions should be introduced, and the resulting revenues should be given to countries that get into trouble. We are also in favour of splitting the universal banks up into traditional retail banks and investment banks. Moreover, the credit institutes should not sit on the central bank’s cheap money. They must feed it into circulation so that the economy can prosper. At present, the money does not reach the places where it is needed.

Pope Francis says that in many countries the relationship to real economic power gets lost through debt. Does that mean that Germany should cancel the debts of countries like Greece and Portugal?

In his third encyclical, “Caritas in Veritate”, former Pope Benedict XVI suggested generosity as a possible way of overcoming the crisis. If Germany could be generous towards a weaker member of the community, that would accord with the former Pope’s wishes and would be desirable. Germany is far from economic collapse. If it could continue with the same kind of strength even after writing off the debt, it shouldn’t find generosity too difficult.

In the treaties on monetary union, it says that no country is responsible for the debts of another. Moreover, the former Greek government falsified statistics in order to get into the Euro Club. Many Germans do not understand why they should help Greece against this background.

Would you rather punish the Greeks? Hmmm. Of course you could do so. But if you want to keep Greece in the community of monetary union, that won’t help, because Greece’s industrial base is weak.

“The Vatican does not go to countries which come under the European rescue umbrella”

The Catholic Church itself is not exactly poor. Why doesn’t the Vatican show more generosity towards Greece and donate money to the crisis-ridden country?

The Vatican appears to be rich. But you forget that thousands of church communities depend on the Vatican’s money, especially in Africa and Asia. This means that every year, when our financial people in Rome do the end-of-year accounts, we are dependent on donations to balance the books and to stay liquid. For example, take the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum”, which organises the Holy See’s humanitarian relief operations in areas of crisis and catastrophe. I know the president of this council very well and know how often he travels to countries like Haiti, Venezuela and Syria. And whenever he sets off, he takes money for the needy with him. The Vatican does not go to countries which come under the European rescue umbrella. But we go everywhere else in the world where the need is great, and try to alleviate it.

You said earlier that greed is one of the central causes of the economic crisis . . .

. . . definitely! Greed affects people’s judgement, it ruins everything.

For the Catholic Church, greed is even a deadly sin.

Yes, but not all bankers in Wall Street take to the church pews on Sundays. I would explain greed to the non-Christians among them like this: people who keep piling more food on to their plates than they can eat are acting greedily. The same applies to money – when people take much more than they need to live.

In the gospel of St Mark, Jesus says: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”. At what level of earnings or wealth should I start worrying?

That text from the Bible does not say that prosperity is evil. It means that wealth can be an obstacle to living a perfect life and being a good Christian.

In Germany, there was a huge debate about the salary of VW CEO, Martin Winterkorn, who earned about 17.5 million euros in 2011. Is that too much to count as a good Christian?

It is not about exact sums. Even one euro can be too much: for example, if you come across someone in the street suffering from hunger and you refuse them this single euro which they could use to buy something to eat. Wealth is given to us by God, it should never be an obstacle on the path to him. Nevertheless, one can of course wonder whether anyone actually needs 17.5 million euros. What do you do with so much money? After all, you can also have a wonderful life with 50,000 euros.

“In this crisis, if the poorer countries were a bit more modest and the richer ones a bit more generous, a lot would have been achieved.”

You were born in Ghana as the fourth of ten children. Your father was a carpenter, your mother sold vegetables at the market. Today, you are one of the most powerful men in the Vatican. What advice do you give to others who grow up in humble circumstances?

You must never give up, never despair, you must not shy away from hard work and not be above getting your hands dirty. People who come from my part of the world, Africa, are often more tenacious and more resistant to disappointments in life that people from the northern hemisphere. And I would like to take this opportunity to say something else.

Go on!

What Greece and Portugal and the other so-called crisis countries in Europe are going through is normal for many developing countries. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund tell them daily what they must do and must not do. The countries affected must definitely lower their material demands, but they must on no account give up. In this crisis, if the poorer countries were a bit more modest and the richer ones a bit more generous, a lot would have been achieved.

About Peter Turkson
Cardinal Peter TurksonPeter Turkson came from the poorest background imaginable: he was born in Ghana in 1948, the fourth of ten children. His mother sold vegetables, his father worked as a carpenter. He succeeded in getting to university and studied theology in Amisano in Ghana, and in New York. After many posts at different institutes, Pope John Paul II appointed him Archbishop of Cape Coast in 1992. Four years ago, Turkson became president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and so counts as one of the ten most powerful men in the Catholic Church. He is regarded as being a good networker and, in recent years, has made a name for himself as “the social conscience of the Vatican” for his work for the poor. After the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, Turkson was one of the favourites to succeed him. For some bookmakers in London, he was even regarded as being the most likely candidate.

The interviewer was Christoph Schäfer/ www.faz.net

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