There are always a few kids hanging out by the St. Frances de Sales hilltop perch, and indeed, on the day I arrived from Accra, there was a boy at the top, waiting on a bench in front of the church’s wooden doors. He and I chatted for a few minutes. And then he had a question for me: “Are there gay people in America?”

This kid wasn’t waiting in front of just any African church; this cathedral was the former spiritual ward of Cardinal Peter Turkson, a Ghanaian clergyman who is one of the top candidates to become the next pope. As the cardinals meet this week in Rome to decide who will be the next to lead the world’s largest church—they are currently locked in a conclave and won’t come out until they’ve chosen—oddschecker.com, an online bookkeeper that compiled a list of odds from 13 papal handicappers, gives Turkson a 22 percent of getting the job—higher than all but Angelo Scolo of Italy.

Turkson’s candidacy is now being talked about with the type of what-if enthusiasm that typified the early days of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. Not only would he be the first black pope, he would be the first non-European pope ever—a reflection of the church’s gravitational shift from the States and Western Europe to Africa and Latin America. Electing Turkson would break down an enormous barrier in a church that’s often accused of being insular and stubbornly tradition-bound.

But if you look beyond where he comes from and what he looks like, you’ll find that Turkson isn’t exactly the candidate of hope and change. His deep conservatism has been parsed plenty by the media, but it took a visit to the cardinal’s former dioceses here in the Cape Coast of Ghana for me to understand that if any change would come Pope Turkson, it would be the kind that sends the Catholic world even deeper into its past.

This is not to say that Ghana has to hear from the rest of the world, much less answer to me, for its bigotries. The country has its own path to take, its own battles to fight on homosexuality and the biggest civil rights issue of our time. But if the mission of the papal conclave is to unite and heal wounds in the church, it’s worth considering how different Turkson’s and Ghana’s views on sexual issues are from the larger church.

Despite Turkson’s frontrunner status, his relatively short stint as cardinal has not been without controversy. Last year he showed a YouTube video that used phony demographics to overhype the spread of Islam in Europe. He later apologized.

But it’s the sexual politics of his teachings that most concern reformers.

“Some say that we can control the disease through the use of condoms, but that’s where the church has difficulty,” Turkson told American Catholic magazine in 2010. “At the end of the day, the question we find ourselves asking is: What is the condom really for?”

Though he opened the door during a news conference for their use by a married couple where one partner was infected, he also said you couldn’t trust condoms to hold up properly in the African heat. Yet a warm climate is not an insurmountable barrier to latex condom use.

Through all of this lies a tendency toward denial and scapegoating of gays. Consider his take on the church sex abuse scandal. Turkson recently told CNN that African communities had natural defenses against homosexuality—which, according to him, explains why the abuses hadn’t been reported in such large numbers on the continent.

“In several communities, in several cultures in Africa homosexuality or for that matter any affair between two sexes of the same kind are not countenanced in our society,” Turkson said.

These views, however, are a reflection of the beliefs of many in his country. As my conversation with the boy on the steps of St. Frances suggests, the existence of gays is regarded with a sort of lurid fascination in Ghana, as if they’re some kind of sexual insurgency that will overrun the country’s traditional mores any day now.

Just the other week, Ghana’s press was ablaze with homophobic articles after the prospective minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection hadn’t been sufficiently deprecatory to gay people during her parliamentary vetting.

This clashes strongly with the views of the richest and arguably most influential bloc of Catholics in the world, the Americans. A 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that a majority of American Catholics support gay rights on some level—53% supported gay marriage. In Ghana, where there is neither legal protection nor legal status for homosexuals, the conversation is not whether gays deserve rights, but whether homosexuality exists at all.

I met quite a few of Turkson’s former flock during my time in Cape Coast. There was the expected excitement about the possibility of a Ghananian pope. But whispers of reform were absent, even among the white-robed young men at St. Peter’s Seminary’s leafy campus, where Turkson once taught. They are the church’s future, and they are on board with the conservative stance reflected in Benedict and Turkson’s teachings.

“I would prefer that whoever is appointed as the new Pope change nothing,” said Augustine Abakah, a fourth-year student at the seminary. “If we start listening to what everyone is saying and dancing to that tune, it could be disastrous for some time.”

“From us, coming from here, we have a very traditional way,” said Matthew Edusei, rector of St. Peter’s. The church cannot just change, he said, and he did not expect Turkson to attempt to do so.

“Because it is Catholic, you cannot so easily fit it to the time now,” Edusei said of the church’s teachings. “If you do that you will be called to account.”

But for most parishioners here, it’s not a matter of reform versus tradition, condoms versus AIDS, or even black versus white; it’s about having one of their own rise to the highest seat in the Catholic church. I met Matthew Nkewsi Mensah at the top of the 42 steps leading up to St Frances, a lung-searing climb he has done every Sunday for the last 24 years. He wore a colorful print shirt with Pope John Paul II’s face patterned on it, along with Turkson’s image from his years in charge of the archdiocese here.

Of course he remembered Turkson, Mensah told me. Turkson was the Archbishop who would give out toys and books to kids around the holidays. He would answer your questions about Mass at his residence face-to-face. Mensah described him the way almost every Catholic I spoke with during my time in Cape Coast did: an open, humble leader, who didn’t see his status in the church as an opportunity to gain power, but as a job to be done. He tenderly referred to him as “my Cardinal Turkson.”

And what if he were to made Pope?

“It would be a blessing,” he replied.

The question is, for whom?


Chris Stein is an Accra-based correspondent for the AFP and the Christian Science Monitor. You can follow him on Twitter or on muckrack.com.