Right in the middle of the election of a new pope in 2005, in the midst of a global Catholicism shocked by the sudden rise of a German pope in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger because the likelihood of having the first Latin American pope was really high, I was already musing – if Latin America or Africa have their papal fuertes materiales, Asia should have at least one. Bishop Chito Tagle came to mind as likely to be the first Asian pope.
Now, he is one step away to becoming a member of the College of Cardinals from where the pope is plucked from – as the new Archbishop of Manila replacing the venerable Cardinal Gaudencio Rosales.
In a way, there is a sliver of predictability because good politics alongside bad politics, also cloaks the Church. In what ways can we trace in Bishop Tagle’s appointment good politics, and by this I mean the human power of choice and discernment rather than the claim to some mechanical notetaking of an absolute celestial dictates?
First, Pope Benedict XVI and Bishop Tagle are Vatican buddies, having worked closely as members of the elite International Theological Commission, Bishop Tagle being one of the two Asian members only during his time of the Commission. The Vatican has been stamping its magisterial trust in Bishop Tagle especially in doctrinal matters. And like in any run-of-the-mill organization, a boss must hire someone s/he can harmoniously work with, one s/he deems more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the job than the others. Bishop Tagle is highly capable for the job even with his seemingly young age of 54.
I contend one cannot undermine the importance of theological knowledge in Bishop Tagle’s appointment in the context of the Pope’s vision for the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Benedict has been repositioning the Roman Catholic Church identity and presence within the surging waves of secularism especially in the West, and the growth in numbers of young people by leaps and bounds especially in Latin American and Asian Catholic countries. For Pope Benedict, the Roman Catholic Church must reclaim its “catholicity” before other Christian denominations, Christianity being splintered by postmodernism. This drive led for example to the formation of the Anglican Ordinariate where Anglicans disgruntled by politics and theological rifts in the Anglican Church are Romanized again. To counter secularism, one must be sure-footed in the soil of theological knowledge and flexibility, articulate enough to pen or preach its nuances minus its jargons. Bishop Tagle, again, is highly qualified for this kind of job.
Second, Bishop Tagle’s ecclesiastical involvement and vision for a renewed Roman Catholic hierarchy must have taken radical swing in the free air of the Catholic University of America where he wrote his doctorate dissertation on episcopal collegiality (now a book Episcopal Collegiality and Vatican II). His track record shows his deepening involvement in the leadership structure of the Church having been a resource of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference, the Synods of Asian Bishops in Rome, and the head of the Episcopal Commission on Doctrine and Faith. Bishop Tagle is undoubtedly an exemplar man of the Church.
Third, it must be kept in mind that we have in Pope Benedict XVI a moral purifier, one who has not quite diverged from his Germanic rigidity and Kantian heritage in its belief that only rational beings are capable of being responsible for his/her moral actions, right or wrong. Sexually abusive clergies and church personnel must be subjected to legal actions. Pope Benedict preaches internal conversion within the Church if she is to be light and salt for a secularly growing world, if we want our theological doctrines to remain credible.
We have in Bishop Tagle moral consistency. Most of his life of ministry has been spent as a seminary formator and teacher. He has been at the forefront of clergy formation and must remain so to be relevant as a bishop of Manila. Right before him is the challenge of overhauling clerical attitude of convenience, privilege, spiritual complacency, materialism, know-it-all infantilizing behavior. Clerics who drive luxury cars and to casinos, who financially support children they sired, who compete with one another for rich parishes and subdivisions, who pursue “further studies” as escapes from the cost of their missions, who infantilize their parishioners as if Christianity was introduced yesterday, who forecast their future retirement and security by buying beaches and building private houses. Clerics who believe that knowledge and attendance in stock market is an edge and is essential in fulfilling the injunction to “look at the birds and the lilies of the field.”
And not only clerics.
In a time when some Philippine Catholic bishops are embroiled in connivance in systemic corruption, denial, moral shortsightedness – Bishop Tagle’s consistency is a catchment base in this disastrous deluge of moral weaknesses.
Finally, on the role of paradox here in his appointment. In the corridors of Loyola School of Theology where he was my mentor, Teacher Chito, exuding human warmth as always, wears simple shirts. Everybody knew that the Jesuits who trained him have been courting him to join the Society. He simply declined because he wanted to remain a Diocesan clergy in the classroom and seminary forming and modelling for young seminarians. He is a brilliant teacher. Morally infectious. A lot knew that moves were on the ground to ordain him as bishop. For years, he declined. And for reasons on why he finally succumbed to the bishopric, reasons most of us are not privy into, one can only surmise that it must be his love for this christened though weak Body of Christ and its potential for permanence and renewal that goad him.
All the best in your new ministry Bishop Chito Tagle.
Photo credit: oureyeinmanila