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How Powerful Is Cardinal Tagle Now?

The Red Pope is rising high.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Just six months ago in December 2019, Pope Francis appointed Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle as the head of the powerful Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, one of the most significant departments in the Roman Curia, the administrative body of the Vatican.  

With Tagle’s appointment came the informal title of “Red Pope” or Prefect of Propaganda, a position that commands vast resources and wide influence. Its purpose is to oversee the Church’s evangelization in territories without dioceses in Asia, Africa, and Oceania, and remote places in Canada, the United States, and Eastern Europe.

Undoubtedly, Pope Francis is surrounding himself with like-minded reformists such as Tagle, who can shake up the Roman Curia, once notorious for its rigidity and abusive practices. In 2018, the Pope denounced infidelity and abuse within the Roman Curia during his Christmas greetings to its members.

Why did Pope Francis promote Cardinal Tagle as Cardinal Bishop?

According to the Catholic News Agency, the College of Cardinals is structured in three orders: cardinal deacons, cardinal priests, and cardinal bishops.

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On May 1, Pope Francis elevated Tagle’s rank to cardinal bishop, the highest rank of cardinals in the Catholic Church. It was a break from Church custom and more significantly, the Canon Law. He is the first Asian cardinal to be elevated to the rank.

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Traditionally, there were only six cardinal bishops in the world, each heading a suburbicarian see in Rome. Suburbicarian sees are the seven special dioceses located in Rome’s vicinity, which are traditionally headed by cardinal bishops.

But in 2018, the Pope restructured the College of Cardinals and added some of his most trusted cardinals from the Roman Curia to the rank of cardinal bishop on top of the six who were heads of the suburbicarian sees. Now, there are 14 cardinal bishops out of 223 cardinals in the world. The new cardinal bishops, including Tagle, do not have a suburbicarian see.

Cardinal bishops enjoy direct access to the Pope, who regularly meets with them for consultation as a group or individually. Tagle could be one of the few confidants of the Pope.

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According to the Pope, he decided to expand the membership in the rank of cardinal bishops to include the heads of some of the most important departments in the Vatican.

Tagle’s elevation to the rank of cardinal bishop was meant to emphasize the importance of his role in the Church and as one of the Pope’s most trusted cabinet members. He represents the shift of the Church from a Eurocentric point of view to one that focuses on Asia and the peripheries where the faith has seen exponential growth.

 

How powerful is Cardinal Tagle?

Many Vatican pundits are quick to note how Tagle is shaping up to be a worthy contender for the papacy, with some suggesting he is now positioned as the second most powerful in the Vatican after the Pope.

As the Red Pope, Tagle is the Roman Curia’s head of Propaganda Fide, officially known as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples or CEP. As head of the CEP, he commands vast influence and resources.

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“The department known as Propaganda Fide is something of an empire,” writes Christopher Lamb in The Tablet. As the Red Pope, Tagle has the power to appoint bishops, and will be responsible for most of the Church’s work in Asia, Africa, and Oceania.

But Tagle is about to become even more influential in the Catholic Church, as he will also take over another important department, apart from his already powerful CEP.

Pope Francis is set to merge Tagle’s CEP with the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization, creating a super department in the Roman Curia that is more powerful than the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the office that Pope Emeritus Benedict headed XVI held before he became Pope.

The new directions that the Vatican is taking are signs that it wants to prioritize the Church’s evangelization and the growth of its pastoral ministry rather than focus on dogma, and Tagle is the one who will lead this.

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On top of these, Tagle has been president of the Church’s charity arm, the Caritas Internationalis since 2015. As president, he leads a confederation of 165 Catholic relief and development agencies around the world that includes Caritas Manila.

Is Cardinal Tagle a strong contender for the papacy?

His most recent ascension as cardinal bishop makes him the youngest to hold the rank at 62.

Five of the 14 sitting cardinal bishops are past the age of 80, which makes them ineligible for the papacy or to participate in a conclave. Six others are in their mid and late 70s. There is no question that Tagle is the most physically able among the most senior cardinals in the Catholic Church, and this could be a factor to consider when cardinals choose the next Pope.

Tagle’s assignment can be construed as a subtle endorsement from Pope Francis, perhaps not as the next Pope, but definitely an expression of his vote of confidence for the Filipino cardinal. Before he became Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio busied himself with charity work and pastoral work that focused on Argentina’s peripheries—things that Tagle used to do when he was still bishop and is doing now on a much larger scale.

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Such subtle expressions from the Pope do not escape the College of Cardinals. In February 2013, after announcing his resignation, Pope Benedict made a very unusual speech when he asked for prayers: He spoke in Spanish. To many people, the unusual choice of Spanish (he usually spoke Italian or Latin) for his speech was a clear sign that he wanted the next Pope to come from a Spanish-speaking region, and that he was endorsing Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina.

But there is no subtlety in Tagle’s recent appointment as the Red Pope, or his ascension to the rank of cardinal bishop, or his appointed role in reforming the Church. There is no doubt that Cardinal Tagle is a strong contender for the papacy—he is young, he holds one of the most powerful positions in the Church, he is hugely charismatic, and he shares the same views as the Pope when it comes to humility and charity. 

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There is no doubt that Cardinal Tagle could be the next Pope. But for now, we must be content in the fact that Tagle is the most prominent cardinal that Asia has ever produced. 

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Mario Alvaro Limos
Features Editor, Esquire Philippines
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