Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Who is most likely to succeed Pope Francis?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 11, 2019

The appointment of Cardinal Luis Tagle as prefect of the Congregation for Evangelization has prompted informed Vatican journalists to observe that Pope Francis may be hoping to put the Filipino prelate in place to become his successor.

Pope Francis will celebrate his 83rd birthday next week, and his physical condition has never been robust. Although he shows no signs of slackening his pace—and has not recently repeated his earlier suggestion that his papacy would last only “four or five years”—the Pope could be thinking about ways to ensure that his policies will survive beyond his death or resignation—that he will ensure the “irreversible change” that his supporters hoped he would bring to the Church.

Cardinal Tagle was already on any informed observer’s list of papabile, and this appointment undoubtedly moves his name up that list. The Congregation for Evangelization, popularly known as Propaganda Fide, is one of the most powerful Vatican dicasteries, responsible for the Church’s work in mission territories around the world. Cardinal Tagle will be watching over about 4,000 dioceses and roughly one-third of the world’s Catholic bishops.

Moreover, as Edward Pentin notes in the National Catholic Register, the long-awaited reform of the Roman Curia will give Cardinal Tagle even greater authority. In its current draft form, the apostolic constitution Praedicate Evangelium makes Propaganda Fide a super-dicastery, second only to the Secretariat of State (and superior to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) in its power.

John Allen of Crux sees the Tagle appointment as a logical one, since the Filipino cardinal is closely aligned with the policies of Pope Francis—so closely, in fact, that he has been identified as the “Asian Bergoglio.” Cardinal Tagle is aligned with the liberal “Bologna School” on matters of theology, and with the Pope’s own emphases on social justice.

On one level it makes sense for Pope Francis to appoint a cardinal who shares his views to what will become the #3 post at the Vatican. On another level the choice will give Cardinal Tagle experience in dealing with the Roman Curia: experience that might be considered a necessity for a papal candidate. So did Pope Francis make the appointment to advance his own plans, or to promote a potential successor? Does it matter?

While the Pope can promote the standing of his own favored prelates, bear in mind that he will not have a vote at the next conclave. When Pope Benedict XVI made Cardinal Angelo Scola the Archbishop of Milan in 2011, Vatican-watchers suggested that Benedict was pointing to Cardinal Scola as his preferred successor. And maybe he was. But the conclave made a different choice.

From an oddsmaker’s perspective, the close association between Cardinal Tagle and Pope Francis might not help the Filipino cardinal’s chances at the next conclave. Many cardinal-electors, shaken by the controversies that have dogged this pontificate, might look for a very different sort of candidate—someone who would restore confidence, reinvigorate traditional teaching, or at least bring a sense of equilibrium to the Vatican. The “Asian Bergoglio” is only 62 years old, and the College of Cardinals might shy away from the prospect of another lengthy pontificate guided by the same unsettling principles.

Apart from Cardinal Tagle, who would be the leading papabile if the conclave were to take place in the near future?

• Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State, would be high on any list. He too would have both the benefits and the drawbacks of a close association with Pope Francis and the possibility that he (not quite 65 years old) could have a long pontificate. He has a very distinguished record as a Vatican diplomat, but he is handicapped by never having served as a diocesan bishop. And the financial scandals currently swirling around the Secretariat of State might hurt his chances.

• Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, could be a prominent contender in light of his current role chairing the Council of Cardinals. But he will be 78 years old soon, and both he and the archdiocese he leads have been implicated in both financial and sex-abuse scandals.

• Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna and Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, were considered leading papabile before the last conclave. They are both at retirement age (Ouellet is 75; Schönborn will reach that age in January), but some cardinal-electors might actually favor an older candidate, with the prospect of a comparatively short pontificate. Both cardinals are former students of Pope Benedict XVI; that too could be seen as either a plus or a minus.

• And Cardinal Robert Sarah might be the candidate most likely to draw support from cardinals who look back fondly on the days of Pope Benedict, and hope for a reversal of Pope Francis’ policies. Cardinal Sarah has been careful to avoid criticism of the Holy Father, even while he has seen his own influence wither during the current pontificate; he has been a loyal soldier—some might say too loyal. Still he has published three books in quick succession, outlining his own clear vision of the needs of the Church. A native of Guinea (where he risked his life in defiance of a dictator) and now a veteran of the Roman Curia, he would bring a dramatic personal story to the papacy, as the first African Pontiff in centuries. He is 74 years old.

In his own rundown of the papabile Vatican-watcher Sandro Magister of L’Espresso introduces a name that will be unfamiliar to most American readers: Cardinal Matteo Zuppi of Bologna, who is a leader of the St. Egidio Community. Like the cardinal, the St. Egidio Community is not well known in the US, but exercises enormous influence in Italy, in Europe generally, and in fact in Africa—where it has helped to mediate international peace accords. By Magister’s calculations, that background makes Cardinal Zuppi the front-runner to succeed Pope Francis.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jan02 - Dec. 13, 2019 10:28 PM ET USA

    What about Cardinal Mueller?