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Leading Asian papal candidate: An easy smile, but hardly a reformer

Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio
Philippine Cardinal Luis AntonioAlessandra Tarantino / AP

MANILA, Philippines — On the face of it Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio "Chito" Tagle has a lot going for him as a contender for pope. He's young: At 55, the second youngest of the cardinals. He sings and preaches on television, and has 120,000 followers on Facebook.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has named him among the three "least worst" papal candidates because of the way he has spoken out on sex abuse by members of the clergy.


He became something of a protégé of Pope Benedict, and if elected would be Asia's first pope.

Before getting carried away, though, it is worth looking at what he has been doing with those communication skills and the state of Catholic Church here in the Philippines.

It is locked in a fierce battle with the government over social reform, in what has become a struggle for hearts and minds in a country where for centuries the church wielded enormous and almost unchallenged power.

Four-fifths of the Philippines' 104 million people are Catholic, and the country has one of the highest birth rates in Asia.

The most recent dispute was over a law to help the country's poorest women gain access to birth control and introduce sex education in public schools and family-planning training for community health officers. It was finally passed by parliament late last year after being stalled for a decade by opposition from the church.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippine declared that "contraception is corruption!" and that the moral fiber of the nation was at risk.

Critics say the Church's doctrinaire attitude has for decades been the biggest single drag on social and economic development in the Philippines, where the U.N. estimates that half the country's 3.4 million annual pregnancies are unintended, and improved maternal health care would save hundreds of pregnancy-related deaths every year.

A large banner opposing the law still hangs on Manila Cathedral, and the Catholic groups are mobilizing for forthcoming senate elections, where they intend to target senators who supported the legislation.

The passing of what's called the Reproductive Health Act was a severe blow to an institution that had commanded almost unwavering support.

Suddenly it is no longer taboo to defy the church, and President Benigno Aquino III has vowed to press on with changes, with reformers urging him to liberalize abortion and divorce laws.

Surprisingly, the coverage of the conclave by the Philippine media has been very low key, though that could change if it drags on and Tagle is seen as having a serious chance.

There is nothing Filipinos like more than seeing one of their own making a big impact on the global stage. One young woman even described the battle for the papacy as rather like watching Filipino boxing sensation Manny Pacquiao in one of his international prize fights, and feeling the same sense of pride.

On the face of it, there's a big difference between the boxing ring and the Sistine Chapel, yet both require some pretty deft footwork.

And Tagle, with his easy smile and disarming charm, will be a key player, even if he is regarded as an outside bet for the crown.

But his is not the easy charm of a social reformer. Far from it. And reformers here in Manila fear that in the knockabout world of Philippine politics, a strong performance by Tagle in Rome could strengthen the hand of conservatives at home fighting what many regard as much-needed reforms.