— The pope appointed Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana to head the Vatican's justice and peace office Saturday, a high-profile post that cements his reputation as a possible future papal candidate.
The office is responsible for promoting the church's social teachings on justice issues, such as war, the death penalty and human rights. Turkson told reporters three weeks ago there was no reason there couldn't be a black pope, particularly after Barack Obama was elected U.S. president.
Turkson's appointment to his new post was announced at the end of a three-week Vatican meeting on the role of the Catholic Church in Africa, which Turkson had headed. In their discussions, the 300 bishops and cardinals tackled the pressing issue of AIDS on the continent, including the question of whether married couples could use condoms if one spouse is infected.
While the Vatican has no specific policy concerning condoms and AIDS, the Catholic Church opposes the use of condoms as part of its overall teaching against artificial contraception. It advocates sexual abstinence and marital fidelity as the best way to combat the spread of HIV.
In their final recommendations to the pope, the bishops made no mention of condoms, leaving it up to the couples themselves to decide how to prevent infection. Asked at a news conference if this marked a deviation from church teaching, Turkson replied that the Vatican still had no firm policy on the matter.
"That issue is still being discussed," Turkson said. "I don't know when this discussion will come to an end, but I'm aware such a discussion is going on in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith."
In 2006, the Vatican's top health care official confirmed his office was studying whether condoms can be condoned in the case of a married couple where one spouse is HIV-positive. Since then, there has been no indication the issue was still on the table until Turkson's comments.
In the final recommendation, the bishops called for pastoral care for couples dealing with an infected spouse to help form their consciences "so that they might choose what is right, with full responsibility for the greater good of each other, their union and their family."
Other issues in the document include:
_An urgent call for starting religious dialogue with followers of Islam and African traditional religions.
_A recommendation that each African bishop name an exorcist to deal with sorcery and witchcraft, which are part of traditional African religions and cultures.
_A denunciation of an African Union agreement known as the Maputo Protocol that says abortion should be legal in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is endangered.
_A call for a day for reconciliation every year.
But the biggest news to come at the end of the synod was Turkson's appointment, which drew a round of applause when Pope Benedict XVI announced it at a luncheon with the 300 bishops, priests and others attending the synod. The 61-year-old archbishop of Cape Coast replaces Italian Cardinal Renato Martino, who is retiring.
Up until now, the most prominent African cardinal mentioned as a possible first black pope was Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria. But he retired from the Vatican office in charge of rules for celebrating the liturgy around the world last year, and will celebrate his 77th birthday next week, making him an unlikely choice.
Speculation has swirled for years about the possibility of a pope from the developing world because that is where the church is growing fastest.
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