For me, the appointment of the young, charismatic Bishop of Imus, Luis Antonio Tagle, as the next Archbishop of Manila, has two implications that should draw the interest of observers of Church politics.
The first implication tells a lot about what did not happen, which is the appointment of Archbishop Socrates Villegas, the long-time acolyte of the now-deceased Jaime Cardinal Sin, the powerful Manila archbishop who was once described by political theorist Samuel Huntington as the most important– perhaps a euphemism for meddlesome– prelate anywhere in the world since the Renaissance.
I think Villegas, a darling of the local press and civil society groups, was not selected because of the Vatican’s desire to deviate from the legacy of the late Cardinal Sin’s political activism. This is something that I’ve speculated upon as early as when the late John Paul II divided the Archdiocese of Manila into three dioceses, which deprived Sin of the ability to force hundreds of Catholic schools and parishes to produce warm bodies in political rallies. And this is something that a ranking Vatican bureaucrat had also confirmed, according to a very recent report by Wikileaks.
The second implication is that Bishop Tagle is on his way to becoming a star in the Catholic church. And if he plays his cards well, he might even become the first Filipino papabili. Let me explain. First of all, Tagle knows Rome and has considerable connections there, extending to the Holy Father himself, which he began nurturing at a young age. Indeed, with the exception of Jose Tomas Cardinal Sanchez, he is probably the most well-known Filipino prelate with the Curia. He had worked in the Pontifical Theological Commission under the close supervision of its president, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is said to have been very fond of him. When the future pope once introduced him to John Paul II, the German jokingly assured the Polish pontiff that Tagle had already had his first communion.
Second of all, Tagle will be the second youngest cardinal in this year’s consistory and would reign over the Manila See for at least twenty years, which means he can nurture immense influence. The Archbishop of Manila, after all, is the de facto primate of Asia. Third of all, Tagle, despite his moderate leanings, seems to be acceptable to both the liberal and conservative factions of the Church, and has both the serious theological integrity and personal charisma– he is on YouTube and Facebook!– which are important traits needed of a 21st Century pope. Should there be a clamor for a Third World pope in the next conclave, and should the timing of such conclave be auspicious, Tagle could be that clamor’s poster boy.
We have to remember that similar elements– being a known theologian, a compromise between the Siri conservatives and the liberals, and a poster boy for the clamor for a non-Italian pope– worked well for then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in 1978. For Tagle, you can say it’s a long shot, but you definitely can’t dismiss it as impossible.
Update, Oct. 22: CNN’s Vatican analyst also thinks Bishop Tagle is a papal contender, according to the Inquirer