As speculation grows about the potential resignation of Pope Francis, whoever the next Pope is will say a great deal about the direction of a Church being pulled in different directions and threatened by schism with a progressive Synodal Path. One leading candidate to succeed Pope Francis is Hungary’s Cardinal Erdő, a conservative canon law expert coming from a country on the frontline of the European culture war. His appointment would send a powerful message about the direction the Church would be taking. On the other hand, a Pope from the developing world – such as the Philippines’ Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle – would be hailed by liberals, given the changing demographics of the Church.
But this may not be the victory liberals wish for. Even as the College of Cardinals is becoming less European, conservatism remains the driving force of the Church in the Global South, where – for instance – attitudes to LGBT issues are far more traditionalist than in the Anglosphere and western Europe. While various names have been thrown around for the next Pope, such as Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet or Dutch Cardinal Wim Eijk on the conservative side – alongside compromise figures like Maltese Cardinal Mario Grech or Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi – the Pope is said to favour Cardinal Tagle or Italian Cardinal and Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.
But it is Cardinal Erdő who may be emerging as a front-runner. As John Gizzi – Chief Political Correspondent for Newsmax – recently pointed out, “talk of Erdő as a future Pope is nothing new”. But, as Gizzi wrote, one Vatican insider told Newsmax the current Pope “is not going to be around for long”, adding that “at the most, he will be there until December.” Meanwhile the source told Newsmax to closely “watch Cardinal Erdő… he is the one who [the College of Cardinals, who will elect the next Pope] are beginning to talk about.”
The Hungarian cleric – considered a traditionalist who shows respect to those who prefer the Latin Mass – also has the respect of liberals and could be a unifying force within the Church. This could be especially necessary if there are two living former Pontiffs, or if and when Pope Francis – in retirement – becomes a loadstar for liberals in the event of a conservative successor. Pope Francis has already appointed Cardinal Erdő as the “relator general” of the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops.
But if Cardinal Erdő’s election would send shockwaves throughout Europe – at a time of cultural schism between the two halves of the Continent – the election of a Pope from the Global South, would perhaps signal the changing face of Catholicism, and indicate that Pope Francis’ liberal direction had been ceemented. As Newsweek pointed out: “Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle from the Philippines has been given 5/1 odds of being elected the next pope by British bookmakers OLBG. Also highly favored to replace Francis is Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, who has been given odds of 6/1.” Cardinal Turkson is, however, a noted conservative who offered his resignation as head of a Vatican department last year, apparently fed up with internal divisions.
As Newsweek reported, Cardinal Tagle “is viewed as a top papal contender thanks to a series of promotions that make Francis’ esteem for him clear.” Called the “Asian Francis”, he was appointed by Pope Francis to lead the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in 2019. Crucially, Cardinal Tagle is seen as representing the Church’s progressive wing, having criticised previously “harsh words” against LGBT Catholics. But again, Cardinal Tagle comes from a conservative country, which may compromise his liberal credentials as a successor to the current Pope.
By contrast, the election of a Pope from central and eastern Europe would be hugely significant the other way, and seen as a massive shot in the arm to conservatives in that region. While it would be wrong to characterise Cardinal Erdő as aligned directly with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the Cardinal’s past statements suggest some sympathies, while he is the leading Catholic in a country which is now 80 per cent Christian and very much on the conservative nationalist side of the great European cultural divide.
Orbán would see a Hungarian Pope as a hugely significant moment. Back in 2015, during the height of the European migrant crisis, Cardinal Erdő struck a tone which would seem to align with Orbán. Just as Pope Francis was calling on Catholics to take in refugees, the Cardinal said taking in refugees would amount to human trafficking. Meanwhile, Bishop Laszlo Kiss-Rigo – the Church’s most senior official in southern Hungary – was quoted as saying Pope Francis “doesn’t know the situation” and Hungary was under “invasion.”
As Niall Gooch wrote for UnHerd: “Francis and Orbán represent two approaches to what Christian politics should look like in the modern world. Among all the governments of Europe, Orbán is probably the leading standard-bearer for what you might call ‘civilisationism’. He is concerned with the persistence and survival of a particular people, and a particular culture, in a particular place – primarily the Hungarians, but also Europe more widely.”
Yet, the Pope, Gooch argues: “draws on other streams in Christian political thought. As an Argentinian Jesuit, the type of villain that looms large in his mental furniture is the aggressive and chauvinistic nationalist leader, who cemented his own power with cynical attacks on foreigners and the enemy within.” In the Pope’s eyes, “a Christian country and culture is not one preoccupied with its own integrity and its own survival, but one which makes an unshakeable political imperative from the divine commands to welcome the stranger and to recognise all men as brothers.”
In Hungary, Catholic officials are known to ally with Orbán, who has overseen a constitution with references to God and Christianity, and funded Christian schools. Yet, despite Cardinal Erdő’s statement, the following year he expressed concern about tendencies to turn religions against one another. Then in an interview with Valasz On Line in 2019 – when asked about Islam and immigration – Cardinal Erdő asked rhetorically: “Can a country, a continent, be called a Christian?”. He added: “I wouldn’t emphasise whiteness as a Catholic, though”, suggesting he could reach across the aisle to liberals.
A contest between Erdő and Tagle would show a Church at a crossroads, not just between conservatives and liberals, but between the forces of traditionalism in Europe – the original heart of Catholicism – and the changing face of the faith, focused more in the developing world, yet still largely conservative in outlook, not least on LGBT issues. If symbolism matters, then Erdő vs. Tagle would be a contest not just of ideas but of perception and identity.
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