Tagle’s place in the coming conclave

Predicting the outcome of a conclave is always a purely speculative excercise. After all, it’s almost impossible to determine what’s on the cardinal-electors’ mind. As in all political events, however, an educated speculation is possible if all variables are carefully examined.

For instance, while the election of Karol Cardinal Wojtyla in the second conclave of 1978 had been very surprising to most; it was, in retrospect, not that improbable. At that time, there had been a bitter battle between the reactionary clerics, led by Guiseppe Cardinal Siri, and the liberals, led by Giovanni Cardinal Benelli. This bitter rift ensured that there would have been a gridlock — since neither of the blocs could have attained the required two-thirds majority — and that a compromise candidate would have had to be found.

Cardinal Wojtyla was not very well-known outside Poland then, but he had been widely-respected by cardinals and prelates in Rome and elsewhere. A philosopher and charismatic pastor, he had been a rising star in the Church, having first gained attention in Synods of Bishops and in several speaking engagements, particularly in the United States. Pope Paul VI even asked him to deliver the papal Lenten retreat in 1976. Vaticanologists should have considered him a papabili then, but they assumed that a non-Italian cardinal had little or no chance.

This blog was among the first, if not in fact the first, to point out that the popular Archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, could become the first Filipino papabili. Almost all Vatican observers– from the relatively liberal American John Allen to conservative Italians Andrea Tornelli and Sandro Magister– now agree that the Cardinal is indeed a papabile in this year’s conclave. But how big, or slim, are his chances?

In many ways, the coming conclave is similar to the one that elected Cardinal Wojtyla. As in 1978, the conclave this year is completely unexpected, and there is no clear favorite to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, just a myriad of papabiles. Cardinal Tagle, too, is in many ways very similar to John Paul II. Like Cardinal Wojtyla, the Filipino archbishop is a rising star who has a serious reputation as a heavy-weight thinker and a charismatic pastor. Like the Polish pope, he gained fame for his performances in Synods of Bishops and in several speaking engagements, most notably his electrifying performance at the International Eucharistic Congress in Canada back in 2008.

There are several variables that must be considered in analyzing a conclave. The first of these would be the alignment of coalitions within the Church in general and the College of Cardinals in particular.

Pope Benedict XVI’s reign is in many ways a continuation of the Wojtyla regime. Having served loyally as the doctrinal enforcer of Pope John Paul II, this German pope is committed to preserving his predecessor’s theological legacy, which is relatively conservative. Most of the cardinals are part of this Wojtyla-Ratzinger coalition. Even within the Wojtyla-Ratzinger coalition, however, there seems to have been a lot of rifts and confrontations, most notably on the issues of the Pope’s attempt to reform the Vatican’s financial system and the sexual abuse scandal.

There have been reports that a conservative coalition led by the Secretary of State, Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, and his predecessor, Angelo Cardinal Sodano, have been at odds with the Pope himself on how to handle the sexual abuse scandal. Pope Benedict XVI’s long-time student and assiduous “campaign manager” in the 2005 conclave, Archbishop Christoph Cardinal Schonborn of Vienna, for instance, has even publicly castigated Cardinal Sodano for dismissing the abuse scandal as mere rumors. The Pope, said Cardinal Schonborn, had wanted to deal with the abusive priests aggressively when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, but cardinals Bertone and Sodano, who seem to have the entire Curia behind them, undermined him. There were also allegations that Cardinal Sodano, as John Paul II’s Secretary of State, protected his disgraced predecessor, Hans Hermann Cardinal Groer, who had been accused of molesting seminarians.

Cardinal Schonborn had since been gagged by Rome and his comments has led to the unofficial promulgation of the so-called Sodano Rule, which prohibits cardinals from publicly criticizing their fellow cardinals. The Sodano Rule, however, did not apply to Archbishop Jose Horacio Gomez of Los Angeles, who publicly censured his predecessor, Archbishop Emeritus Roger Cardinal Mahony, for coddling sexual offenders.

Another issue that divides Rome is the allegedly growing influence of Cardinal Bertone, who had been the target of the Vatileaks scandal. Critics say that he has been abusing his influence as the papal prime minister, undermining the Pope, who in turn had been too busy with his theological writings he has neglected his duty as Rome’s foremost administrator. Cardinal Bertone, for instance, is widely believed to have been behind the first consistory of 2012, which created twenty-two cardinals from Europe, dramatically altering the demographics of the College of Cardinals in favor of Italy and reversing the trend of internationalizing the College, ostensibly to pave the way for an Italian restoration in the papacy. Pope Benedict XVI tried to reverse him by calling for a surprise second consistory, the star of which, most agreed, had been Cardinal Tagle.

Another variable that must be considered is the crossroads in which the Church finds itself at the moment of the conclave. The challenges facing the Church would certainly affect the opinion of the cardinal-electors on what qualities the next pope should have.

For instance, the cardinal-electors picked Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005 partly because he was seen as the only person with the gravitas to fill the big shoes left behind by John Paul II. But more importantly, while there had been widespread talk then of a non-European pope– some say that Archbishop Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires placed second to Cardinal Ratzinger in that year’s conclave– at that time, as in now, the Church’s biggest concern was the rising tide of secularism and the erosion of Christian cultural identity in its own backyard, hence the need for a pope who knows Europe inside out (and true enough, most of Benedict XVI’s trips throughout his papacy have been in Europe).

Things are not much different this time around. The Catholic Church is still losing ground to secular forces in the West, and it needs someone who can continue Pope Benedict XVI’s drive to win it back. Aside from tackling issues like the clerical sex abuse scandal, engaging the secular world and leading the so-called New Evangelization, which was widely discussed in the Synod of Bishops last year, are being given importance. Therefore, perhaps the cardinals would look for someone capable of doing either, or both, of these.

The third variable would be demographics. The composition of the College of Cardinals definitely affects how it votes. The overwhelming majority of the cardinals have been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI, although some may insinuate that many this majority can perhaps be characterized more as Bertone babies rather than Ratzinger fans.

The biggest bloc comprises the Italians, who form around 17% of the total vote. The Americans, with 11 votes, are the second biggest national bloc. In terms of continents, Europe has 62 votes, Latin Americans has 15, Africa and Asia have 11 each, while Oceania has one.

As many in the media have already pointed out, many among the cardinals should by now already be exchanging views with each other, and looking up some of the candidates’ profiles. Cardinals who have had their moments in the spotlight, and those who have had regular correspondences with their fellow electors, have an obvious advantage. Media reports, both from the secular press and the Vaticanologists, are probably a factor, too.

Of course, how each cardinals vote would not be affected solely by geography. Who they interact with will also determine their views on what qualities the next pope should have. In this respect, we can say that perhaps many of the Italians look to cardinals Bertone and Sodano for guidance, although they won’t necessarily vote as a bloc. The Latin American group is also less likely to vote as a bloc, since it has among its midst many cardinals capable of wielding influence, which means no one cardinal can be a unifying force for the group. The same is true with the Africans. Perhaps the Americans, led by their primate, President of the American Bishop’s Conference Timothy Cardinal Dolan, would be more inclined to vote as a group. In Asia, meanwhile, Cardinal Tagle is no doubt the primus inter pares, although the counsel of the elder electors, like Australia’s George Cardinal Pell, would probably be sought as well. In short, the fourth variable to watch are the potential king-makers among the cardinals.

Currently, cardinals Angelo Scola and Dionigi Tettamazi appear to be the candidates leading the charge for an Italian restoration. They will be seen as candidates of the Bertone-Sodano coalition, which favors continuing the Church’s policy on the sexual abuse scandal, among others. Cardinal Schonborn, another papabili, would be the opposition to that coalition, and will favor stronger sanctions against erring priests.

Cardinal Schonborn’s advantage is that he is seen as the continuation of the Wojtyla-Ratzinger regime. However, his public remarks against Cardinal Sodano, which was rebuffed by Rome itself, along with the rebellion of priests he is facing in Vienna, are a bane to his candidacy. At best, we can probably relegate the Austrian cardinal to the role of king-maker.

If it’s true that there’s a rift between the Bertone-Sodano clique and those who think like Cardinal Schonborn, then there would probably be a need for a compromise candidate to emerge. Gianfranco Cardinal Ravasi comes to mind.

Cardinal Ravasi’s role as the President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, where he tried to constructively engage the secular world, including the agnostics and atheists, has gained attention. While the Church is just beginning to learn how to engage the youth through social media, the Cardinal already tweets to tens of thousands of followers. He also led the papal Lenten retreat this year, a sign that he might have Pope Benedict XVI’s nod– the previous two popes were chosen to lead the retreat prior to their elections, too.

Reports alleging that Cardinal Ravasi is a vain man, however, might not sit well with some cardinals. Similarly, his being an Italian could be a bane, especially if enough voices in the conclave clamor for a non-Italian, or even a non-European, pope. If that’s the case, then the most viable candidate would be Canada’s Marc Cardinal Ouellet.

I’ve argued on Twitter that if the next pope would not be an Italian, then he will most likely be Canadian. Cardinal Ouellet has worked in the Curia long enough to be considered by the Italians as one of them, but still obviously not an Italian for everyone else. He has, willingly or unwillingly, developed a formidable power base as Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, which selects candidates to be archbishops and bishops all over the world. Demographics works well for him too, since he has cultivated intimate relationships with Latin American cardinals as President of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. In other words, not only is he amenable to the Italians because of his Curial background, he could easily secure the support of the North American bloc, which has 14 votes, and the South American bloc, which has 13, too.

So, where is Cardinal Tagle in all these scheme of things? Unfortunately, his chances are very slim; but, then again, so were Cardinal Wojtyla’s in 1978.

Cardinal Tagle’s biggest disadvantage, it has often been said, is that he is the youngest among the Latin rite cardinal-electors and one of the six most junior members of the College. But this attribute could in fact be turned into an advantage.

Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation due to his advanced age may prod the cardinals to seek a younger and more energetic pope. There is, of course, a concern that electing a young pope would lead to a papacy that is too long; but, as Magister has pointed out, Benedict XVI’s precedent, which makes resignation an option for future popes, mitigates this. Moreover, there might be those in the College who feel nostalgic about John Paul II’s pontificate and would want to elect a charismatic pastor with a photogenic smile. It’s hard to find a cardinal now who’s more charismatic and photogenic than Tagle.

Moreover, as one of the leaders of the Synod of Bishop last year that drafted the Vatican’s policy of New Evangelization, Cardinal Tagle can be seen not only as a charismatic pastor who can lead the Church into the new world dominated by social media, but also a high-caliber thinker who knows where the Church is in the midst of growing secularism, and where it should go.

Polish priest Mieczyslaw Melinski, a friend of then Cardinal Wojtyla, once argued with the future pope that he would be elected in the 1978 conclave, which the then Polish cardinal naturally laughed off. But the priest’s arguments then were telling: Noting that the time had come for a non-Italian pope, he said, “the Archbishop of Krakow is not a bureaucrat, but a pastor and an intellectual who became known during the Council and then during the Synods of Bishops. You’ll be the next Pope!” He could have been talking to the Archbishop of Manila.

But there is one difference between Tagle and Wojtyla. The Polish cardinal was seen in 1978 as an acceptable compromise candidate because he was seen to be neither too liberal nor too conservative. Cardinal Tagle, on the other hand, has strong progressive credentials. His connections with the School of Bologna, a group known for its liberal interpretation of the Second Vatican Council– I argued last year that this had been the reason he was bypassed in the first consistory of 2012– have been a source of controversy, something that the eminent Filipino theologian, Father Catalino Arevalo, dismissed as merely a politically-motivated attempt by some in Rome to paint the Filipino as a “super-ultraliberal,” when in fact Tagle and Ratzinger have pretty much the same theological views.

In numerous Synods, Cardinal Tagle was unafraid to speak out on issues such as the shortage of priest, which was the premise of his call for the Church to debate celibacy. He also pointed out the need for the Church to address not only the issues of child abuse scandal, but also of priests who keep mistresses, particularly in the Philippines. Finally, in the last Synod, he called for a “humble, listening Church,” saying that the Catholic Church is turning people off because of its arrogant, “know-it-all attitude.” These could endear Cardinal Tagle to those who understand where he is coming from, but alienate him from those who are still conservative, if not in fact reactionary, in their orientation.

Some recent praises for the Filipino cardinal, however, could balance this. For example, popular conservative Vaticanologist Sandro Magister, who once criticized Tagle’s elevation to Manila in 2011, is now singing a different tune. He now says that the Cardinal, the only viable Third World papabili, is very balanced in his theological orientation and has the confidence of the Pope himself.

Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI, the patron of the traditionalists, seems to treat the young Filipino as a protege of sorts. Some even say the surprise consistory last year was done precisely because the Pope had wanted the Archbishop of Manila to be in the College before his abdication. Like cardinals Schonborn and Ravasi, therefore, Cardinal Tagle may be seen to be enjoying the esteem of the departing pope.

But I suspect that Cardinal Tagle’s candidacy could only be seriously considered if, like Cardinal Wojtyla’s candidacy in 1978, someone in the College, a king-maker if you will, pushes hard for it. In 1978, Franz Cardinal Koenig of Austria pushed for Cardinal Wojtyla as an alternative to cardinals Siri and Benelli, personally talking with individual cardinals to convince them that the Polish archbishop was the right guy. Cardinal Wojtyla was already well-known among the cardinals then, but it was Cardinal Koenig’s maneuvers that truly propelled him to front-runner status during the conclave.

This time around, the potential king-makers are Cardinal Dolan, who leads 11 American cardinal-electors and could therefore swing the vote for a particular candidate, assuming he is not himself in the running;  Cardinal Schonborn, who would probably look for a candidate who subscribes to Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy but is not part of the Bertone-Sodano axis; and Cardinal Ouellet, the front-runner himself, who could, as we’ve mentioned above, influence a large number of cardinals across different continents. Cardinal Ouellet, it should be noted, was quick to come to Cardinal Tagle’s defense when Magister criticized him for his connections with the Bologna school.

But would anyone of these king-maker throw his support behind the Cardinal from Asia? For now, it’s anyone’s guess.

UPDATE, MARCH 12: Based on reports in the Italian press, the biggest cleavage in this year’s conclave seems to be emerging between the Americans and the Italians.

The Americans, the second-biggest national bloc in the College of Cardinals, have been holding a daily joint press briefing, which had enraged the traditionalists so much the Roman Curia issued a gag order. The US cardinals are said to be pushing for a papacy that is not beholden to the Curia, and are fielding two of their own, Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York and Sean Patrick Cardinal O’Malley of Boston. Their third choice is said to be Marc Cardinal Ouellet of Montreal.

Meanwhile, the Curial cardinals and the Italian bloc, knowing that they would lose if they field an Italian, is rallying behind Brazil’s Odillo Cardinal Scherrer. Cardinal Scherrer might attract the naive Third World cardinals who would see him as one of them, but the Brazillian is a Curial insider; perhaps as Italian as Joseph Ratzinger. The problem is that, according to Magister, he is not even popular in Brazil– the bishops there allegedly rejected his candidacy for presidency of their conference.

UPDATE, MARCH 15: Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, has been elected Pope Francis. 


18 thoughts on “Tagle’s place in the coming conclave”

  1. Would it be possible that Pope Benedict XVI can still wield influence over the conclave since it’s the first time in 600 years that a Pope is still alive and will witness the election of his successor? Would it be possible that the Cardinals will consult him for his possible successor? Just a thought. 😀

    1. It is a possibility, but unlikely. The conclave is closed to those who are not going to vote. That means that Benedict can influence cardinals only for so long as the conclave has not started yet.

  2. Excellent analysis! As much as I want Tagle to win though, I think it would be Ouellet. I am worried that Dolan or any of the Bertone faction could get enough votes to take the Papacy. In which case then, the Church is screwed.

    I think Tagle can only win if there is prolonged balloting, which would make Ouellet and other frontliners concede and work towards propping him up as an alternate candidate, the way Konig campaigned for Wojtyla. But with the requirement reduced to simple majority, I don’t think the balloting will last long enough.

  3. Excellent. Do you play chess, too?

    So the election will engage politics and personality, but be guided by spirituality. Sounds like a senate campaign. I personally like Cardinal Tagle. Good guy. Smart. I hear he is a poor administrator, rather like the Pope, I guess. That is a hesitation. And he has gone quiet in the Philippines, leaving the public speaking to the CBCP and a couple of jesuits.

    The Church is odd. Each cardinal or bishop a nation unto himself. Rather like the Navy I guess, and the way ship captains run things.

    Thanks for setting the scene so well.

    1. I think those who raise the issue of the Cardinal’s fitness are the reactionary clergy and lay leaders. I have heard many accusations from these clique, like Tagle is a closet Lutheran, for instance. But, I think the Cardinal has not really been tested enough, since his stints in Imus and Manila sees have been rather short.

  4. John Allen is featuring Cardinal Tagle as the Papabile of the Day. He lays down the case in favor, and against, Tagle. Looks like his humility might be his bane.

    1. Tagle argued that in the Asian context, effective evangelization means a church that’s humbler, simpler, and with a greater capacity for silence. – Ouch said CBCP

  5. About Cardinal Scola, it looks like he was alleged to have been involved with an alleged plot to kill the pope. Man, that’s scary stuff.

    1. Yes. He speaks Italian, German, French, Spanish, English and Tagalog fluently. Look up his address to the Eucharistic Congress. He gave greetings in Spanish and French.

  6. Nicely-written analysis you’ve got here:) You make it sound like an analysis for a political election but I guess it can’t be helped. Reality is, politics is alive and kicking in the Vatican:) Let’s just all hope the Holy Spirit reins them in and enlighten them to choose the right one.

    Agree with you, Cardinal Tagle’s chances are slim…and so with almost all of the non-Italians on the list. But if we can root for one, I’m definitely rooting for him. Not just because I’m a Filipino but more so because I think he has all the virtues the world needs in a 21st century Pope.

  7. I happen to be one of the seminarians of Tahanan ng Mabuting Pastol (translate: Home of the Good Shepherd) in Tagaytay City, Philippines where the venerable Cardinal Tagle (always Bishop Chito for me and many more) has been rector for most of his life as a priest and bishop. Cardinal Tagle has been my rector all through my seven-year theological formation. He was my mentor in some theology courses — Reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and Theology of Priesthood — and he willingly obliged to be my moderator when I wrote my theological synthesis in 2005. He ordained me as deacon in 2006 and as priest in 2007. All these years, what is obviously great about him is his being a true-blue pastor and his humility. Heavyweight thinker? That’s what he is well-known for even outside the country. As far as doctrinal leaning is concerned: he stands where Jesus stands — always considering as prime the value of the human person and whatever promotes and upholds human dignity. His ecclesiology is Pauline ensuring that charisms are discovered, tapped and are nurtured for and in bulding the Church, be it the local Church or the Universal Church. Contrary to the perception that he is ‘soft’ when it comes to social issues, well, you have to be with him among those most directly affected by these issues and you know where he stands. He is fearless and straightforward yet he has a way of being appealing even to the seeming antagonists he has. Cardinal Tagle would never forward himself into the limelight and in the halls of power, authority, and popularity. But given the call to be so considered, I am pretty sure he is not one guy who would shrink from responsibility. His life is prayer in itself. And the fruits had been overflowing as we see it. When he listens to you, you realize how important you are before him. When he weeps, I see strength of character and faith. And when he laughs (you should hear the way he does… he does it with gusto and loses his eyes when he does), I hear the joy and glee of a man who has Christ in himself!

    Can he be Pope? Yes, he can… not because he wants to be one! Yes, he can be and he will be one… only because the Holy Spirit so designs and so wills!

    Nota bene: When he was Archbishop Tagle, he readily agreed and made time to preside over the Eucharist and officiate the renewal of vows of my parents on their 5oth Wedding Anniversary last year. That’s what he does, making time even for the insignificant ones!

  8. Cardinal Tagle is ready to assume the responsibility to be the visible head of the Church in this 21st -century if we (Filipinos) will do our part to clean the mess in our own country; re-evangelization is a necessity!

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