Pope Francis has an ambitious goal: to redesign our global economy to serve even our most vulnerable. His vision of a new ‘social economy‘ is one that discards and hides no one. Can he do it?
This month I flew to the Vatican to find out.
I sat with Cardinal Peter Turkson, whom His Holiness tapped to lead their efforts to build the next generation of social entrepreneurs. Cardinal Turkson is the Pope’s top advisor on integral human development and is helping shape the newly launched Laudato Si’ Challenge – an initiative to seed fund and accelerate entrepreneurs building companies that change the world.
This interview is my first in a new series called ‘Icons of Impact,’ where I’ll explore the human stories of today’s impact icons. The people driving capital and culture to reshape our world.
Below is my interview with Cardinal Turkson, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Brendan Doherty: Where are you headed to tomorrow?
Cardinal Peter Turkson: Seattle.
Doherty: Oh, you’re headed back to where we came from …
Turkson: I’m going to look for your famous coffee.
Doherty: You’ll find it everywhere!
So, Cardinal Turkson, I’m delighted to be here. We’re so excited and grateful that you’re hosting us in Vatican City. You and His Holiness have spoken about this idea of a social economy, one where folks aren’t discarded, where there’s no one hidden. And I’m curious – this dream of redesigning our economy – when did that start for you personally?
Turkson: Probably since I’ve been in touch with the rest of the world. I was born in a small manganese mining town in Ghana. In a mining town, there are already inequalities that strike you. There are those who walk to work, and there are those who go to work in cars. There are those who pass and kick dust in the face of everybody. And there are those who walk through the dust to go to work.
These different situations were always there. It didn’t create a sentiment of anger within me, it just became a force within you to want to excel, to want to do better – not because you want to be on the other side – but to see what you can change in your own situation. I grew up with the idea that nobody needs to leave anything the way he found it. Everything you come to find, you try to make an impact, and you try to make it better than when you found it.
I went to a school that was a high school and also a seminary. And when I went there, students didn’t have a record player or music or anything like that. So we organized and took contributions to buy our first turntable for the seminary. This was the 60s. So we listened to Wilson Pickett –
Doherty: I’ve read about it, I’ve read about the ’60s …
Turkson: So that kind of thing. Any situation you come to meet, if there are shortcomings, you try to do what you can. Here at the Vatican, the mandate entrusted to the office I lead is the merger of four previous existing dicasteries – one for humanitarian assistance; one for health care; one for migrants, refugees and human trafficking; and one for social justice, justice and peace.
Doherty: They’re all part of the same spectrum, it’s all about the whole individual.
Turkson: Right. At the core, at the central point of this, is a human person.
Doherty: Right. And do you think it’s possible to redesign our entire economy around that idea?
Turkson: It is, it is. I mean our economics are about the administration of the household. If we expand this, we make the whole world our household. There’s the need to safeguard, plan, and administer its resources so that it serves our world. As Pope Francis invites us to recognize – the household is the whole world. It’s our household. It’s our common home.
Doherty: With the Laudato Si Challenge, why did the Vatican decide that they wanted to put their weight behind it?
Turkson: No we didn’t decide it – I’ll tell you how it happened. We planned an impact investment seminar here. I felt that communities in my four areas needed an alternative source of financing for projects at home, over and above donations and grants. Learning about the financial instrument of impact investing I thought – this could be developed and studied to see how it can help local communities – or in my case, parishes outside of here – so that they don’t depend on missionary support and all of that –
Doherty: Which could dry up and be unsustainable.
Turkson: Right, that’s the thought. So we did that with [Catholic Relief Services], we’ve done two with CRS and a third one is in the planning. Then a group in Holland wanted to join but unfortunately it was over-subscribed. So we decided to hold its own impact investment seminar. We wanted to put together resources and people who can propose solutions to the challenges Pope Francis talks about in the encyclical. That’s how the Laudato Si’ Challenge was born.
Doherty: What do you see as the future of it? Do you see the Vatican itself putting capital into it? Do you see it scaling? Do you see more companies?
Turkson: The Laudato Si’ Challenge is developed, but I’ll be frank with you, there’s still much more ahead of it to overcome. The objective of the Laudato Si’ Challenge is to deal with the challenges at the level of the poor but also at the top. What we celebrate tonight is a group of entrepreneurs that we put through an accelerator and who came out as incredible companies. The idea is not simply to create entrepreneurs – but to create entrepreneurs who are able to deal with the challenges which inspired this in the first place. One entrepreneur created a filter that you can put on any source of water and drink clean, disinfected water. This must reach down to communities who need that water all the time.
The Pope sent me to Davos – the World Economic Forum – in 2014. Going to Davos, the Pope appreciates what business people can do and commends them for that. Indeed, he calls business a noble vocation. By calling it a noble vocation, he addresses the challenge, that those who have already distinguished themselves have to find a way of also helping those down there deal with the challenges and problems they face. At the end of the day, that’s what we need to do.
Doherty: What I love about this is it takes the values that are so deep here at the Vatican and the power that comes from that – and combines them with the agility, risk tolerance, innovation, and capital of the private sector. Do you see a partnership like this continuing?
Turkson: Yes. We come at this from a level which is basically the same thing. The former Pope Benedict XVI wrote an encyclical on faith and reason – inviting a dialogue between faith and reason, between science sometimes and religion. It means that faith comes with its inspiration and virtue and merit, and science has its technology and everything else. And the two can come together to respond to the wellbeing of humanity.
Doherty: We’re whole beings – we’re not just one part or the other.
Turkson: That’s it – yes! This is an instance of that. According to Pope Benedict XVI – faith exposes the blind side of science. And science challenges faith to be concrete. So that’s it. It’s a very heralded dialogue challenged to be concrete, and showing that that’s what makes humanity.
Doherty: Thank you for being an inspiring part of humanity.
Turkson: Thank you, thank you.