Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the former archbishop of Manila, may be the strongest papal contender if Pope Francis resigns, like Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI did. But certain factors may affect his chances of getting elected in the next conclave.
One factor is Tagle’s perceived closeness to Pope Francis, who appointed him in 2019 to head the very important Dicastery for Evangelization, the former Propaganda Fide that’s in charge of the Catholic Church’s missionary activities worldwide. Another is his supposed sapless criticism of the drug killings during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, when he was archbishop of Manila.
The Pope has also appointed Tagle as member of important offices in the Vatican curia, such as the Dicastery for Catholic Education and Culture, Dicastery for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Dicastery for the Oriental Churches, Dicastery for Legislative Texts, Dicastery for Interreligious Dialogue, Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, and Cardinal Commission for the Supervision of the Institute for the Works of Religion.
Only last June, the Pope again appointed Tagle as member of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He has likewise been reelected head of Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican’s disaster relief agency.
Because of these curial appointments, Tagle is widely perceived as the Pope’s favorite to succeed him.
But this perception may not sit well with cardinal-electors who may feel that Tagle is too much of a “Francis clone.” They may prefer a more senior cardinal who will provide a conservative balance to the liberal “Franciscan” reforms.
Francis has tangled with senior cardinals and prelates over his attempts to relax theological sanctions on remarried Catholics and to restrict, if not suppress, the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass.
The readiness with which Francis has accepted the resignation of prelates who reached 75 (the mandatory age of retirement for bishops) and replaced them with younger clerics should underscore his desire to direct the Church toward a more progressive path.
But the new bishops were raised in their formative years according to the conservative legacies of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and they won’t necessarily follow every liberal “Franciscan” bidding.
Less than confrontational
Tagle’s critics may likewise raise his less than confrontational stance as archbishop of Manila against Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.
A similar accusation was leveled at Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, perhaps reinforcing Tagle’s image as a “Francis clone.” Although Bergoglio advocated social justice for the poor, his critics said he let his country down with his relative silence during the “dirty war” of the Argentinian military dictatorship in the 1970s.
But it should be said for the record that Tagle did condemn the drug killings: “We knock on the consciences of those who kill even the helpless, especially those who cover their faces, to stop wasting human lives,” he said in August 2017. “The illegal drug problem should not be reduced to a political or criminal issue. It is a humanitarian concern that affects all of us.”
Still, other bishops have been more forthright and vigorous in their condemnation of the killings, especially Tagle’s auxiliary, Bishop Broderick Pabillo.
Tagle seems to reflect the Pope’s rather guarded stance on geopolitical but non-ecclesiastical matters. Francis avoids putting political authorities on the spot, as when he visited Burma in 2017 in the wake of the Rohingya crisis. In his speeches, he did not mention the Muslim ethnic minority group that was the target of ethnic cleansing by the military government and that was the primary reason for his apostolic visit.
Pabillo, who was named apostolic administrator of Manila when Tagle left for Rome in 2019, was not made archbishop. He was named bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Taytay, a very poor church in the remote corner of Palawan where the Cathedral of St Joseph the Worker is a humble structure of straw, wood and galvanized iron. That church in Taytay, Palawan, is just one of the more than 1,000 missionary churches worldwide under Tagle’s Dicastery for Evangelization.
An Asian pope?
Tagle is only the second Filipino to become a member of the papal Cabinet, after the late Cardinal Jose T. Sanchez who was prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy and president of the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See in the 1990s under Pope John Paul II.
Since the Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis in 2013, there has been a perception that the papacy would go farther into the eastern hemisphere toward Asia and Africa, so that Tagle–as a Chinese-Filipino and no less than the archbishop of the most important see in Asia–would be in the best position to become the next pope.
Probably following this projection, Francis has made cardinals out of minority churches in Asia.
In the consistory scheduled for Aug. 27, the eighth in his nine-year papacy, Francis will make cardinals out of prelates from South Korea, East Timor, India, Singapore and Mongolia.
In earlier consistories, the Pope made cardinals of bishops from Myanmar, Brunei, Indonesia, Iraq, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand and Vietnam.
Although cardinal-electors may also become papal nominees, the chances of Asian cardinals making it to the papacy are nil because, aside from coming from minority churches, they don’t have the qualifications of Tagle, who not only comes from Asia’s premier see but is also now a Vatican insider.
Likewise, there’s no Filipino cardinal-elector except for Tagle and Jose Advincula, the new archbishop of Manila. The latter, previously archbishop of Capiz, was a surprise choice to head the Philippines’ most important see.
Curiously enough, the head of the next most important see after Manila, Archbishop Jose Palma of Cebu, has not been made a cardinal due to Francis’ avowed policy of appointing cardinals from the “peripheries”-–a policy that has been taken to mean that new cardinals would not come from “majority” churches.
Cebu is, area- and population-wise, the largest diocese in Asia and has more Catholics than Manila. Historically and culturally, it is just as important as Manila because it is the cradle of Christianity in the Philippines: Christianity arrived in Cebu in 1521, and in Manila in 1570.
Because Cebu hosted the 51st International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) in 2015, Palma has become known to other churches worldwide. If he had been made a cardinal, he would surely be a papabile.
Incidentally during the IEC in Cebu, the archdiocese of Esztergom-Budapest won the bidding to host the next congress, so that Palma turned over the congress colors to Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo.
In September 2021, the 52nd IEC was held in Budapest with Pope Francis in attendance.
Since speculations on the Pope’s resignation have recently been revived, there is much talk again about his possible successors. Aside from Tagle’s, the other name being bandied about is Erdo’s.
Lito B. Zulueta is a long-time journalist who has covered key Vatican events, including the conclaves of 2005 and 2013, which elected Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, respectively. He is an assistant professor at the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas. —Ed.