The Vatican announced a major shake-up on Sunday, December 8 – to the surprise of several veteran Vatican watchers, including this one – which involved a move out of a big archdiocese and into the Curia for a long-standing favourite of Pope Francis, a resulting vacancy in a capital see, and an internal transfer for the head of a curial department.
Pope Francis has taken Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle out of his see of Manila and brought him to Rome to lead the powerful – and apparently ascendant – Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples. The former prefect of the missionary dicastery (often known by its historical Latin name, “Propaganda Fide” or simply “Propaganda”), Cardinal Fernando Filoni, will lead the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre.
Propaganda Fide is already a curial behemoth. It has money, prestige and power. The money has built up over centuries – nobody seems to know precisely where Propaganda’s money is, let alone exactly how much there is or where it came from – and there’s a whole lot of it. Its books are a well-kept secret, even and especially from other powerful Vatican eyes that would pry them open and have a look.
Propaganda’s prestige comes from its place among departments and its missionary remit.
It was another pope with designs on reform, Gregory XV, who in 1622 created the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, which became the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples with Paul VI’s reform of the Curia in 1967. The name changed, but its responsibilities mostly didn’t. Propaganda Fide provides material support to missions worldwide. It trains men for service in the missions. It vets and proposes candidates for appointment as bishops of mission territories.
The appointment of the 62-year-old Cardinal Tagle as prefect is surprising, not least because it comes hard on the heels of a major scandal in connection with which his name cropped up. That scandal involved a Salesian priest from Belgium, Fr Luk Delft, who was convicted of paedophilia in 2012 and quietly transferred to the Central African Republic, where he allegedly continued abusing children and became the national director of the country’s Caritas outfit.
The newly appointed prefect of the Curia’s missionary department has been the president of Caritas Internationalis since 2015, which knew that Fr Delft represented a problem as early as 2017, roughly two years before the convicted paedophile was removed.
Michel Roy, the man who was at the time the secretary-general of Caritas Internationalis – an umbrella for the federation of autonomous national and regional Caritas operations with very limited powers of discipline and oversight – informed Cardinal Tagle regarding a therapist’s letter which said that Delft ought not have access to children.
The Associated Press reported that Roy had told Cardinal Tagle of his plan to inform Delft’s erstwhile employer – the Archbishop of Bangui – and see that the fresh allegations received proper investigation. Roy reportedly told AP that Cardinal Tagle “considered then that the issue was resolved”, but Delft was only removed earlier this year, in June, and only after CNN brought fresh allegations from two boys in the Central African Republic to Delft’s Salesian superiors.
Then there is the surprise over the way the appointment was announced. The news came on a Sunday – the Second Sunday of Advent and the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception – and the announcement of Cardinal Tagle’s successor in the see of Manila was conspicuous for its absence. There are three million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Manila. They are facing a tough time, and by most accounts loved their cardinal archbishop. Leaving them leaderless couldn’t have been an easy decision, but then few decisions at that level are.
On paper, leading a major archdiocese with care of souls is more important than a glorified bureaucratic gig. In reality, the closer one is to the centre of power, the higher one’s stock in the books of the churchmen who trade. Tagle has always been a favourite – of Francis, but also of Benedict and of John Paul II (who named him to the International Theological Commission in 1997 and later made him a bishop).
At 62, Cardinal Tagle is the youngest among the cardinals regularly mentioned as papabili. His relative youth may be a strike against him, but in thinking about the succession, he is someone Pope Francis has always liked, but whose career Francis did not make. In any case, in Rome the prefect of Propaganda is often called il papa rosso: “the red pope”.
It is easy to see Cardinal Filoni’s move as a demotion, but that isn’t necessarily the case. The Knights and Dames of the Holy Sepulchre provide some 80 per cent of the material support on which the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem depends. The Latin Patriarchate punches far above its weight when it comes to education, healthcare, and all sorts of ecumenical outreach and integral human development programmes. Having someone with Cardinal Filoni’s knowledge and experience in the top spot makes sense, seen in that light.