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Pope broke tradition again to make Tagle ‘cardinal-bishop’

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Pope broke tradition again to make Tagle ‘cardinal-bishop’
The promotion of Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle to the rank of cardinal-bishop 'required special papal permission'

MANILA, Philippines – Pope Francis broke tradition again, as he did with 4 other bishops in 2018, to make the Philippines’ Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle one of the highest ranking princes of the Catholic Church.

The Vatican announced on Friday, May 1, that the Pope recently promoted the 62-year-old Tagle to the rank of cardinal-bishop. He is the first Filipino to become cardinal-bishop, making him the highest ranking Filipino bishop in almost 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines.

The former Manila archbishop is now one of 11 cardinal-bishops in the Vatican, aside from 3 others who belong to the Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church and who live away from Rome.

Father Greg Gaston, rector of the Pontificio Collegio Filippino in Rome, told Rappler that cardinal-bishops serve as “close-in consultors” of the Pope.

Being a cardinal-bishop is significant, too, because among them is chosen the Dean of the College of Cardinals, a position currently held by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals plays a big role in running the Vatican whenever a pope dies and resigns. The Dean, if below the age of 80, also presides over papal elections. The most prominent former Dean in recent history was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.

What Pope Francis did

How did Francis break tradition this time around?

Traditionally, there have only been 6 cardinal-bishops in the Vatican.

Each of these cardinal-bishops is assigned to one of 7 special churches close to Rome, called “suburbicarian sees.” One of them, the Dean of the College of Cardinals, gets two suburbicarian sees. In general, it has always added up to 6 cardinal-bishops and 7 suburbicarian sees.

Canon 350 of the Code of Canon Law states that cardinal-bishops are those “to whom the Roman Pontiff assigns the title of a suburbicarian church.”

In the case of Tagle, no suburbicarian see was assigned to him, but the pontiff still ordered Tagle’s promotion, “equating it in all respects to the Cardinals awarded the title of a suburbicarian Church.”

Tagle’s new rank, according to Catholic news website Crux, “required special papal permission” because he was not assigned a suburbicarian see.

Canon 331 of the Code of Canon Law states that the Pope “possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church, which he is always able to exercise freely.”

‘Francis men’

Alongside the May 1 announcement of Tagle’s promotion, the Vatican said Francis also promoted Cardinal Benjamin Stella of Italy as cardinal-bishop. Unlike Tagle, Stella was assigned the Suburbicarian Church of Porto-Santa Rufina.

Crux said both Tagle and Stella “have long been considered ‘Francis men,’ and his decision to promote them marks a clear sign that they have the Pope’s stamp of approval.” 

Both Tagle and Stella belong to what can be considered the Pope’s 9-member “Cabinet” helping him run the Vatican bureaucracy. Tagle is prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples while Stella is prefect of the Congregation for Clergy.

According to the Jesuit magazine America, Stella was made cardinal-bishop “to fill the vacancy that had resulted from the death of the French cardinal Roger Etchegeray last September; he held the title of the church of Santa Rufina.”

“On the other hand, the Vatican said Pope Francis ‘co-opted’ Cardinal Tagle, the new prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, to that same order by a special rescript, involving a derogation from canon law, which gives him the same status as those who have a title to a suburbicarian church. This is an exceptional way of making him a member of the order,” reported America.

It was in 2018 when the Pope first broke the tradition of naming only 6 cardinal-bishops based in Rome. Back then he promoted 4 top Vatican officials, including his secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin, as cardinal-bishops without giving them suburbicarian sees.

This comes as Vatican watchers say Francis is grooming Tagle to become a potential successor as Pope, a speculation that the Filipino always prefers to brush off. Paralellisms have often been drawn, however, between him and the Pope, including their closeness to the poor, their charisma, even their training under the Jesuits.

Before he was promoted to cardinal-bishop, Tagle’s office was already poised to become the second most important in the Vatican. Being prefect of a powerful Vatican congregation positions him “to be a possible successor to Pope Francis,” wrote Vatican analyst Edward Pentin. –

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior multimedia reporter covering religion for Rappler. He also teaches journalism at the University of Santo Tomas. For story ideas or feedback, email