Manila Cardinal Jose Luis Antonio Tagle has been named Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, a large dicastery in the Roman Curia, also known as Propaganda Fide. This is an important appointment that recognizes Tagle’s personal merits as a cardinal and the Philippine Church’s exalted place in the universal Church.

This appointment places a new Asian cardinal in charge of the dicastery nine years after Cardinal Ivan Dias of India headed it from 2006 to 2011. From 2011 to 2019, it was headed by the Italian Cardinal Fernando Filoni, who served briefly earlier as the Pope’s ambassador to the Philippines; he has been named Grand Master of the Order of the Holy Sepulcher in place of Cardinal Edwin Frederick O’Brien who resigned in April 2019 upon reaching the age of 80.

Tagle was archbishop of Manila from 2011 to 2019. And president of Caritas Internationalis, a federation of Catholic relief, development and social relief organizations, and of the Catholic Biblical Federation. It is not clear whether he will have to give up these other positions because of his new post. The Remnant, a Catholic newspaper, has alleged that the head of Caritas’s African branch, a Salesian priest, has been promoted to his present position despite his having been exposed in 2017 as a sex offender. The other side of the story has not been heard.

Although Tagle is Propaganda Fide’s first Filipino prefect, he is but the second Filipino to hold a high position in that dicastery and in the Roman Curia itself. The distinction of being the first Filipino in both categories belongs to the late Cardinal Jose Tomas Sanchez of Pandan, Catanduanes, who died in Manila on March 9, 2012 at 92, as prefect emeritus of the Congregation of the Clergy.

On Oct. 30, 1985,  Sanchez was then Archbishop of Nueva Segovia when St. John Paul II named him secretary of Propaganda Fide, after he helped  with some of his speeches on his first apostolic visit to the Philippines in 1981. On June 28, 1991, Sanchez was made cardinal; three days later, he was named prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy where he served until he retired on June 15, 1996 at 76. But he remained at the Vatican, doing some special missions for the Pope, beyond the death of St. John Paul II and the election of his successor Pope Benedict XVI (now emeritus) in 2005.

My wife and I stayed with the Cardinal during St. John Paul II’s wake through the conclave that elected Cardinal Josef Ratzinger as the new pope. The Bicolano cardinal, being past 80, was no longer eligible to attend the conclave and vote, but Cardinal Ricardo Vidal of Cebu, who was a voting delegate, would occasionally come for lunch. Everyone had their own favorite papabile even before the voting started, so in one of those lunches I asked the two cardinals who stood the best chance of becoming the next pope.

Cardinal Sanchez’s answer was calmly prophetic. He said that if the conclave did not take too long, Ratzinger would most probably take it because nearly all the cardinals knew him; and if elected, he would most probably take the name of Benedict, the patron saint of Europe, and dedicate his pontificate to the re-Christianization of Europe.  This was precisely what happened.

Even for the admittedly brilliant Cardinal Chito, whom the Vatican journalist John Allen likes to refer to as “the next Pope,” this would be a tough act to follow. But the immediate challenge to the new cardinal-prefect probably lies not so much in demonstrating his prophetic faculties as in dealing with  the doctrinal and ideological controversies facing the Church. Although these controversies are preeminently the Pope’s concerns, as they stem mostly from his theological asides and initiatives, Tagle cannot possibly avoid getting drawn in, for they involve what the Church must teach faithfully in the name of Christ.

Beginning with the controversy arising from the papal document Amoris Laetitia, which had prompted Cardinals Raymond Burke, Carlo Caffarra, Walter Brandmueller and Joachim Meisner to raise five “dubia” related to its apparent departure from the Church’s original teaching on marriage, up to the latest issues elicited by the Amazon synod on the “Pachamama,” the proposed ordination of married men to the priesthood, the admission of women into the diaconate, and the tightening clerical embrace of contraception and abortion, which the Church had long condemned as intrinsically evil, as a new way of combating climate change, the dicastery will surely have to clarify, along with the Congregation of the Sacred Doctrine of the Faith, what Catholics are obliged in good conscience to believe and what not to believe.

We pray the cardinal and the whole hierarchical Church will have all the strength to endure those determined to see the Church cleansed of the Gospel and the Lordship of Christ, and that no matter the challenge, our dear Filipino prefect will never have to wish he were confronting the evil of President Duterte’s drug killings at home instead.

Tagle’s transfer to Rome leaves the Philippine Church without a resident cardinal in place. Cardinal Ricardo Vidal of Cebu is gone, Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales of Manila and Cardinal Orlando Quevedo of Cotabato are both retired. Filipino Catholics had hoped the last few consistories would include a new cardinal-archbishop for Cebu and another for Mindanao, but so far no one has made the grade.

As one of the world’s largest Catholic countries, the Philippines cannot be without a cardinal for long. But as of now, there is no one to recommend any possible nominee to the Vatican. Archbishop Gabriele Giordano Caccia, the last papal nuncio, has been reassigned as Permanent Observer to the United Nations after two years, to replace the Boholano archbishop Bernardito Auza. who is now the papal nuncio in Spain and Andorra. Even if a new papal nuncio arrives tomorrow, it may take a few months for him to nominate someone whom Pope Francis can make into a cardinal in the next consistory.

In the meantime, the Archdiocese of Manila, the country’s primary archdiocese, is now without an Ordinary, and the Philippine Church of close to a hundred million faithful without a cardinal in its most important archdiocese.