Did Pope Francis just name his successor? Much of the commentary about the appointment of Cardinal Luis Tagle, until now archbishop of Manila, to the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples put that question in first or second place. That’s speculation — about which, more later — but the appointment on its own merits is most significant; some have said that Cardinal Tagle is for Pope Francis what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was for St. John Paul II.


Urgency and Dismissal

The most remarkable thing about Cardinal Tagle’s appointment is that the position was not vacant. Cardinal Fernando Filoni, a widely respected diplomat famous for being the only ambassador not to leave Baghdad during the 2003 Iraq War, is 18 months shy of his 75th birthday and two years shy of completing his second five-year term. Given that Cardinal Tagle is only 62, the retirement of Cardinal Filoni and his replacement by Cardinal Tagle could have taken place in the normal course of events soon enough.

But the Holy Father must have felt a great urgency to get Cardinal Tagle into “Prop,” as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples is still known in Rome, an abbreviation for its old Latin name, Propaganda Fide.

To make room for Cardinal Tagle, Cardinal Filoni was given the greatest Curial demotion in living memory, from being head of one of the most powerful and wealthy congregations — the prefect has the nickname the “Red Pope” — to a largely ceremonial position as grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. It’s a greater demotion than was meted out to Cardinal Raymond Burke, who did not hold as high an office when he was dispatched for his opposition to the Holy Father’s agenda for the family synods.

It was rumored that when Cardinal Gerhard Müller was dismissed as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith he was offered the Holy Sepulchre post. He preferred the freedom to speak his mind in a way that continuing even in a much lesser office would not permit.


Cardinal Filoni’s Offense?

Cardinal Filoni was a rather unadventurous Curialist; he said little outside of formal occasions. It would be hard to know what he would say if he did decide to speak his mind. So it is unlikely that, like Cardinals Burke and Müller, he was fired for seemingly opposing the Holy Father’s agenda.

Yet there were two high-profile dossiers during his tenure, both of which are in shambles.

Most prominent is the secret Vatican-China accord of September 2018, an accord so secret that not even Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the senior Chinese cardinal, has seen it. The Holy See conceded a great deal, lifting the excommunications of bishops who had been appointed by the Chinese communist state without papal approval.

In return, there has been no observable improvements for the life of the Church in China. Quite to the contrary, religious persecution has ramped up considerably, and the Holy See has had to suffer one setback after another.

The accord appears to be a significant diplomatic and pastoral failure, and few voices even bother to defend it. Just last week one of the state-controlled Catholic bishops, recognized by Rome, declared that loyalty to the Chinese state — de facto the Communist Party — must be greater than loyalty to the Church.

Cardinal Zen, the courageous and outspoken emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, has repeatedly blasted the accord and the thinking behind it, not sparing sharp words for the role of Cardinal Filoni.

The other great ignominy of Cardinal Filoni’s tenure was the resolution of the impasse in the Diocese of Ahiara, Nigeria.

In December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed a new bishop, Peter Ebere Okpaleke. A great number of the priests and people refused to accept him, demanding instead a bishop of their own tribe. The standoff went on for years, and Bishop Okpaleke never took possession of his diocese.

Cardinal Filoni, responsible for bishops’ appointments in the mission dioceses, was not able to figure out a resolution. In June 2017 the Vatican deployed the “nuclear option.”

Pope Francis issued an unprecedented order: All the priests had 30 days to promise “total obedience” to the Holy Father and beg his forgiveness. If not, they — the whole presbyterate, if necessary — would be suspended. The Holy Father got his letters of submission.

Nine months later, Pope Francis completely reversed course and removed Bishop Okpaleke from Ahiara. Nearly two years later, there still is no bishop there. Pope Francis may not have been pleased at how Cardinal Filoni managed that matter.

But perhaps the twin miscalculations of China and Ahiara were not cause to remove Cardinal Filoni, and Pope Francis just felt a great urgency to get Cardinal Tagle to Rome, even if it meant public humiliation for Cardinal Filoni himself.


An Asian Turn

The most notable shift from Cardinal Filoni to Cardinal Tagle is from a veteran Italian Curialist to an Asian archbishop. That happened in 2006 for the first time when Benedict XVI sent Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe from Prop to Naples, replacing him with Cardinal Ivan Dias, then-archbishop of Bombay.

Given that Prop handles episcopal appointments for the mission territories of Asia and Africa, having an Asian prefect offers many advantages.

Cardinal Tagle was de facto head of the enormous and dynamic Church in the Philippines, clearly the most prominent bishop in Asia. His travels to the global Filipino diaspora would feature gatherings of thousands upon thousands. The elevation of a prominent Filipino prefect in Rome recognizes that strength.

Here, Cardinal Tagle will face an early challenge. He is known, and admired, for being outspoken, not confined within the usual strictures of ecclesiastical rhetoric. The Filipino bishops were very outspoken about the abuses and aggression of their president, Rodrigo Duterte. Will Cardinal Tagle, part Chinese himself, easily accommodate himself to the Vatican’s silence on religious persecution in China and political repression in Hong Kong?

No one expected Cardinal Filoni to speak out of turn; everyone expects exactly that from Cardinal Tagle. If he doesn’t speak up as expected, the suspicion might grow that putting an Asian face on the Vatican’s troubled China policy was a matter of appearances alone.


The Asian Francis

Cardinal Tagle, created a cardinal in Benedict’s final consistory three months before the abdication, has seen his star rise under Pope Francis. He was a bicycle-riding young bishop, even as Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio took the bus. Both have a love for the poor; Archbishop Bergoglio often visited the slums, while Bishop Tagle would invite the poor to dine with him. Both come from Catholic cultures, but stress the need to evangelize rather than rest upon depleting cultural capital. They are both thought to be sympathetic to liberal positions but with sufficient ambiguity to avoid being provocative. It would be expected that the “Asian Francis,” as Cardinal Tagle is often called, would seek to appoint bishops for missionary territories that would be in the mold of himself and the Holy Father.


The Worldliness of Mission

While the mission of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples is biblically inspiring — spreading the faith to the ends of the Earth — the daily operations are as gritty and grubby as anything in Rome. Prop is enormously wealthy, controlling vast sums in cash, investment and real estate. Those assets are to provide material support for the poor Churches, but the potential for corruption is immense.

In the early days of his financial reform, Pope Francis was willing to give the new Secretariat for the Economy authority over powerful and wealthy departments, namely the Secretariat of State and the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA), which controls the Vatican’s financial and real assets. They, in theory, would be subject to audits and outside control.

The Holy Father abandoned all of that in due course, leaving the new economic secretariat thoroughly neutered. But even in those early potent days, Prop never came within the new department’s remit. It was simply too rich, too autonomous and too influential.

Cardinal Tagle will now control the Vatican’s worldliest department. Will he be able to bring about a conversion of simplicity and accountability? The financial reform of Pope Francis is dead, so it is unlikely that new measures will require Cardinal Tagle’s assent. But will he advance the spirit of that prior reform?


A Future Pope

Popes don’t get to name their successors, but that didn’t stop the speculation that Cardinal Tagle’s appointment was Pope Francis attempting to do just that.

It’s without basis; after all, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio would never have become pope in the first place if Benedict XVI had the power to choose; it would have almost certainly been Cardinal Angelo Scola of Milan.

In any case, the decisions made by the cardinals in the conclave are determined by the circumstances that emerge in the days immediately beforehand.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected in 2005 only after the death and funeral of John Paul — the great religious event of a generation — made continuity highly prized, and the chief lieutenant was elevated. In 2013, the apparent dysfunction of the Roman Curia made more attractive an outsider who spoke of reform in the service of mission.

Cardinal Tagle’s potential as a future pope will depend now, in his new role, to a greater degree on what the cardinals think about the current pontificate at the next conclave. If they have a favorable impression perhaps Cardinal Tagle will seem more attractive. If they have a negative impression, the opposite will be true. In any case, that will be determined then, not now.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.