BEIJING - The conclave that opens in a few days for the Catholic Church to chose a new pope is a historic occasion for China and Asia. This time among the candidates in position for the papacy is a Filipino of Chinese origin, Luis Antonio Tagle, Cardinal of Manila.
Vatican experts say that his inclusion is intended to make the Church look truly universal, with a gesture toward Asia, where Catholics are a small minority. Similarly, after the death of Pope John Paul II, the Indian Cardinal Ivan Dias was included among the eligible candidates for the papacy. In both cases, it was a minimum gesture required, yet it showed a growing trend in the Holy See.
Dias didn’t get the papacy but became the powerful Prefect of Propaganda Fide, the third- or fourth-most important position of the Holy See. In the same way Tagle, even if he doesn’t ascend to the most sacred position, could have an important post in Rome in the future. But the question now goes beyond the facade. The developments are unprecedented because for the first time in the history of the Church, a man of Chinese descent could head the largest religion in the world and a true Chinese, Cardinal John Tong from Hong Kong, will take part in the conclave, bringing Beijing objectively at the forefront in the meeting that will elect the next Pope.
To China, the Catholic question is arcane and in many ways incomprehensible. The Catholic Church has for many years represented a specter: a political force that, under a Polish Pope, shook Poland and thus undermined the foundations of the Soviet empire. Then it took on another dimension, as the Church supported the failing Castro regime in Cuba, which without papal support would probably already be overthrown. So the prospect, however distant, of a pope of Chinese descent - or more realistically, a Chinese senior official in the Curia - raises questions about how he will act toward Beijing.