MANILA—Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle is down to his last few weeks as Manila archbishop before assuming the leadership role in the Vatican’s top missionary department by February.
His new assignment as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (formerly Propaganda Fidei) will put him in a crucial position to help normalize Sino-Vatican relations, and steer the direction for some 12 million Catholics in China.
A 2018 “provisional agreement” giving the Vatican a say in the appointment of bishops in China was hailed as a breakthrough, though critics point out that members of the “underground” church continued to suffer under Beijing’s repressive communist regime.
“Given the trust Cardinal Tagle enjoys from Pope Francis, it’s impossible not to suspect that he’ll have an important seat at the table when significant Vatican decisions vis-à-vis Beijing are made,” wrote Vatican expert John Allen Jr.
Tagle’s predecessors in his new Vatican department had been criticized by hardliners, such as Cardinal Joseph Zen, for supposedly not doing enough to safeguard the welfare of Catholics in China.
The Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, along with the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, exercises more direct responsibility over Catholics there, and were crucial in crafting the China deal.
MAN OF DIALOGUE
It now remains to be seen if this could lead to more significant agreements and eventually normalize diplomatic relations with Beijing, which banished the Roman Catholic Church there shortly after the communist party’s takeover in 1949.
“It's a big challenge,” said Fr. Jerome Secillano, a public affairs executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines.
“Cardinal Tagle is a man of dialogue... Knowing Cardinal Tagle, he's going to exert a lot of effort in order to reach out.”
Diplomatic recognition, analysts believe, would be a major victory for China since it would likely mean the Vatican having to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province.
Tagle has Chinese roots, descending from a line of Chinese migrants from his mother’s side.
“What’s unmistakable today... is that Rome’s road to Beijing now runs through the Philippines and its ethnically Chinese native son,” said Allen.
Catholics in China belong either to the “underground” church, which professes loyalty to Rome, and the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), an instrument used by the communist regime since the 1950s to control the faithful.
The state-sanctioned CCPA appointed its own bishops without approval from the Vatican, which also named bishops to tend to Catholics in the underground.
Last year’s deal sought to resolve this decades-old dispute, giving the Pope the final say on the appointment of bishops in China.
But the agreement also meant the Vatican recognizing 7 China-appointed bishops, who had been previously excommunicated. Meanwhile, those legitimately named by Rome had to give way.
The deal included a push for Catholics to register with the CCPA, raising concerns that it will only expose those in the underground church to further repression.
“When you sign, you accept to be a member of that church under the leadership of the communist party. So terrible, terrible,” Zen, Hong Kong’s bishop emeritus, said in an interview with New Bloom Magazine.