The rise and false ‘sacking’ of Cardinal Tagle

In the secretive and rarefied air of the Vatican, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle’s rapid rise to higher responsibilities as one of Pope Francis’ most trusted confrères has been an object of keen interest among papal watchers.

Recent reports therefore of the total overhaul of the top leadership of Caritas Internationalis, of which Cardinal Tagle has been president since 2015, sparked speculations of his fall from papal favor. Caritas Internationalis oversees the worldwide network of 162 official Catholic charitable organizations.

The local media’s frenzied reports of this momentous event were almost uniformly sensational: “Pope Francis removes Cardinal Tagle, other Caritas Internationalis leaders”; “Pope sacks Tagle, leadership of Caritas International”; “Cardinal Tagle replaced as head of Vatican charity.” Then followed the expected effort to manage the fallout, which only added more fuel to the bonfire of speculations: “Tagle: Caritas revamp ‘not about sexual harassment, abuse or mismanagement’”; “Cardinal Tagle: Caritas relaunch not prompted by dark secrets.” The reports made him sound as though he was desperately defending himself.

The subtext of all these headlines was, of course, this: “There goes the country’s fair hope for a first Asian pope.”

The Nov. 22 announcement of the massive changes in the leadership of Caritas was so cryptic that it allowed plenty of room for diverse interpretations. Though it made clear that the professional audit team designated to perform the review of Caritas’ operations saw no signs of financial or sexual misconduct, the findings seemed serious enough to warrant the removal of the organization’s entire leadership.

The Vatican statement said: “Real deficiencies were noted in management and procedures, seriously prejudicing team spirit and staff morale.” What these deficiencies were exactly was not spelled out. Adding to the confusion was the positive observation that the organization had indeed met its fundraising and allotment goals.

The inclusion of two psychologists in the audit team perhaps provides a clue to what prompted the review which began early this year. The focus of the commissioned study was “the workplace environment of the CI General Secretariat and its alignment with Catholic values of human dignity and respect for each person.” Interviews were done with present and former employees of the organization, vaguely suggesting that the organization may have been hit by an unusual turnover of staff.

A more careful reading of the events, however, would have shown the very opposite of the supposition that Cardinal Tagle was the principal target of the cleanup at Caritas. But then the resulting reports would have been less shocking, and less newsworthy. In fact, it appears more likely that it was Tagle himself who initiated the performance audit, preparatory to the election of his successor in mid-2023. (First elected in 2015, he ends his second term as president of Caritas Internationalis in 2023.)

In the first place, if he was being sacked, the Filipino cardinal would have been spared the ignominy of reading the papal decree announcing his own dismissal before the plenary meeting of his organization. But, it was to him, as “president emeritus” of Caritas Internationalis, that the Pope gave the difficult task of announcing the findings of the audit and the Pope’s order to carry out a sweeping leadership revamp of the organization. The biggest casualty in this revamp was the incumbent Caritas secretary general Aloysius John, who did not attend the session.

Secondly, the leadership change meant that the entire secretariat was ordered to step down and give way to the interim administrator Pier Francesco Pinelli and his staff, who undertook the review process. A new president who will formally take the place of Cardinal Tagle will be elected at the organization’s general assembly next year. In the meantime, the Pope has asked him to help Pinelli in effecting the transition.

Thirdly, on top of the many other hats he wears in the Roman Curia, Cardinal Tagle is expected to devote a good part of his time now to his new responsibilities as “Pro-Prefect” for the Section of Evangelization of the Dicastery for Evangelization, an appointment he has held only since June 2022. The Pope himself heads this particular dicastery or department.

And finally, it is noteworthy that the young Filipino cardinal, who is sometimes called the “Asian Francis,” in reference to the progressive views he shares with Pope Francis, was elevated by the latter to the highest rank of cardinal-bishop in May 2020. This makes him one of only 11 senior cardinals, and the first Filipino cardinal ever to attain this rank.

Cardinal Chito was Archbishop of Manila from 2011 to 2019. But since his elevation to the College of Cardinals by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, he has spent much of his time in Rome, right at the center of the Vatican but away from his own country and people.

Much was expected of him in Manila, where the late Cardinal Sin’s style of leadership continues to serve as a template of episcopal presence for many Filipinos. Alas, relatively little is known of what the quiet and self-effacing 65-year-old Cardinal Chito has done for the global Church in the past 10 years. Judging from the way Pope Francis relies on him, we can assume that he plays a critical role in the realization of the embattled pontiff’s reform agenda.