Cardinal Tagle’s Appointment Points to New Curia, China, Papacy

The new head of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples has been archbishop of Manila since 2011 and president of Caritas Internationalis since 2015.

Cardinal Luis Tagle speaks at a Sept. 27, 2017, media conference at the Holy See Press Office in Rome.
Cardinal Luis Tagle speaks at a Sept. 27, 2017, media conference at the Holy See Press Office in Rome. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

Cardinal Luis Antonio Gokim Tagle’s appointment on Sunday to head one of the oldest, largest and most prestigious Vatican dicasteries is a significant move that points to substantial curial reform, a growing emphasis on Asia, and positions the Filipino cardinal to be a possible successor to Pope Francis.

The 62-year-old archbishop of Manila, Philippines, reputed to see eye to eye on a wide variety of issues from migration to evangelization, will be taking over the reins of the Congregation for the Evangelization of the Peoples (also called Propaganda Fide) at a crucial time in its long history.

Since Pope Gregory XV founded what was then called the Congregation for the Propagation of the Sacred Faith in 1622, Propaganda Fide has served to support the foreign missions financially, as well as to train missionaries and produce literature to help propagate the faith.

The prefect has an extensive patrimony to govern, including prestigious real estate and properties in Rome. In 2016, outgoing prefect Cardinal Fernando Filoni said the dicastery’s jurisdiction included more than 186 archdioceses, 785 dioceses and 82 apostolic vicariates. Such importance was given to the dicastery in the past that its prefect was known as the “red pope.”

But that may change and even intensify under proposals for the new constitution of the Roman Curia called Praedicate Evangelium (Preach the Gospel), whose draft is being circulated for external consultation after six years of deliberations among cardinals.

According to the draft text that first appeared in May, the newly reformed Roman Curia is expected to place a premium on evangelization, possibly turning Propaganda Fide and the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization into a “superdicastery.”

The new body, provisionally called the “Dicastery for Evangelization,” would rank below the Vatican Secretariat of State but above the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, giving the new dicastery considerable prestige and influence.

Cardinal Tagle’s enthusiasm for the New Evangelization, especially with regard to young people (he played key roles in both the 2012 Synod on the New Evangelization and the 2018 Synod on Youth), is therefore a key reason for his appointment, but the Pope has also tapped “Chito,” as he likes to be called, for additional reasons.

Nicknamed the “Asian Bergoglio,” Cardinal Tagle’s background is expected to be an asset as the Church continues to grow in Asia. His close ties with the People’s Republic of China are also expected to be an advantage: His grandfather was Chinese, sent to the Philippines as a child to escape poverty. He is reportedly proud of his second surname, Gokim, which comes from his mother’s Chinese roots.

These connections and his interest in China could be significant as challenges continue regarding the Holy See’s relations with China following last year’s controversial agreement on the appointment of bishops.

But also noted among sources in Rome is how this appointment appears to point Cardinal Tagle toward being a potential successor to Pope Francis.

For some years, it has been rumored at senior levels that Francis wants the Filipino cardinal to replace him, allegedly even going as far as sending Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga to Manila to give Cardinal Tagle a few practical lessons on how to be pope. When it became clear he was not ready or able, the Pope began looking to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn as a successor instead.

But since then, Cardinal Tagle’s star has again been rising, and this was especially noticed at the youth synod last year, when he drew many votes to be on a synod committee. A synod participant who was present told the Register soon after the meeting that the cardinal had received a good reception and, on those grounds, was someone to look out for at the next conclave.

Yet despite his popularity among some of the hierarchy, Cardinal Tagle is also seen by some as questionable in terms of theology. Although Benedict XVI appointed him cardinal in 2011 and he is thought to be somewhat sympathetic to Joseph Ratzinger’s theology, he has also been a researcher for the Bologna School which views the Second Vatican Council as a rupture with Tradition and a “new beginning.” It’s not clear if he, too, holds that view.

Cardinal Tagle has been president of Caritas Internationalis since 2015 and was re-elected its head in May this year. He was appointed archbishop of Manila in 2011.