Right now, the Irish betting firm Paddy Power has Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle of the Philippines as the favorite to be the next pope, giving him 11/2 odds. Already dubbed the “Asian Francis,” Tagle got another boost this week with his election to lead a global federation of Catholic charities.
(For the record, Paddy Power has Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston as the American with the best odds, at 10-1.)
Granted, such forecasts don’t have a particularly good track record. Papal elections occur only when the incumbent either dies or resigns, and at the moment Francis seems perfectly healthy with no sign of slowing down. Between today and whenever a conclave might occur, any number of things can happen to change the landscape.
That dose of caution, however, rarely stops “next pope” rumors from being the Church’s favorite parlor game. So if we’re going to go down that route, there’s a great deal to be said for Tagle, who would make a strong runner if the key issue next time is continuity with Francis.
Seen as the Catholic rock star of Asia because of his high media profile and wildly successful TV and internet broadcasts, Tagle on Thursday was elected president of Caritas Internationalis, a network 165 Catholic charitable organizations around the world based in Rome.
Building a “poor church for the poor” is the motto of the Francis era, and from his perch at Caritas, Tagle is now poised to become one of the most influential architects of that push after the pontiff himself.
Serving as president of Caritas doesn’t mean Tagle will move to Rome, or abandon his position in Manila. It does mean, however, that he’ll often be asked to visit disaster zones or conflict areas, articulating a Catholic response. He’ll be more in demand on the lecture circuit, more sought after by the media, and generally will enjoy an ever higher degree of visibility.
Inside the Vatican, it means that Tagle will be more involved at the big-picture level in terms of fleshing out the pope’s broad social, political, and humanitarian agenda.
Tagle won the May 14 ballot at the Caritas General Assembly by a wide margin, a reflection of two points: First, that he enjoys great respect and affection among the Church’s charity leaders; and second, those leaders are smart enough to know that Tagle has the pope’s ear and can move the ball.
The Filipino cardinal wasn’t in Rome on the day of his election, because he was in Chicago to receive an honorary doctorate from the Catholic Theological Union. He knows the United States well, among other things having earned a doctorate in theology at the Catholic University of America in 1991.
Tagle’s election by Caritas comes just two months after he was also named the new president of the worldwide Catholic Biblical Federation. (He was actually elected to that post in October 2014, but papal confirmation came on March 5.)
Having hosted a triumphant papal visit to the Philippines in January that drew an eye-popping six to seven million people to the final Mass – in the teeth of a typhoon, no less – Tagle is a lock as the pope’s most important ally in Asia.
The parallels with Francis are indeed eerie.
Before taking over in Manila in 2011, Tagle served as bishop of the smaller Philippine diocese of Imus, where he was famous for not owning a car, preferring to either walk or to hop on one of the cheap minibuses known as a “jeepneys” working-class Filipinos use. He was also renowned for inviting beggars in the square outside his cathedral to eat with him.
Theologically and politically, Tagle is a moderate. He’s open to allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to return to communion on a case-by-case basis, and he also resisted calls to take a more pugnacious line during a recent national debate in the Philippines over a controversial “Reproductive Health” law featuring public support for contraception.
Nobody at Tagle’s level is without critics, and he’s drawn fire on multiple fronts.
Some question Tagle’s theological pedigree, noting that he was a member of the editorial board for a controversial progressive history of the Second Vatican Council criticized by Pope Benedict XVI. Last month Tagle blasted what he called the “harsh words” the Church sometimes has used for gays, unwed mothers and divorced and remarried Catholics. That remark drew blowback from pro-life Catholic groups.
Whatever one makes of Tagle, because of his young age, 57, as well as the multiple leadership posts he holds, he will be a force in Catholicism for a long time.
That point, by the way, is valid whether or not the “Asian Francis” ever gets a serious look as the next pope.