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The Pope’s Ticona Problem: Bolivian Cardinal-Designate Continues to Court Controversy

A new scandal is continuing to develop for Pope Francis, regarding one of the men he plans to make a cardinal at the 29 June consistory. The Bolivian bishops’ conference has just distanced itself from one of their own, Bishop Toribio Ticona Porco, whom he announced as a cardinal-designate last month. The Bolivian bishops now say that Ticona does not speak in their name.

The background for this unusual episcopal move is that Ticona is a friend of the controversial Socialist Bolivian President Evo Morales, who appears to be seeking re-election to a fourth term in violation of Bolivian Constitutional law – a move the Bolivian bishops’ conference opposes. Ticona has also come under fire after allegations surfaced that he has been living in concubinage with a woman with whom he has two children, and that he sold land from the Bishopric of Potosí to her in 2014.

Discord in the Bolivian Episcopal Conference

On the matter of the growing episcopal conflict in Bolivia, the German bishops’ news website Katholisch.de published a report on 16 June. The news agency ACI Prensa also published an article on the matter on 13 June.

According to these reports, the conflict began after Cardinal-elect Toribio Ticona Porco (81), the retired Bolivian bishop of Corocoro, gave an interview on 6 June in which he made some encouraging comments about Evo Morales, saying that he hopes the Church hierarchy of Bolivia would work together with him on certain grounds. Morales had tried in 2016, with the help of a referendum, to receive permission from the Bolivians to be re-elected as President in 2019, but the people rejected his idea. However, Morales has recently indicated that he might nevertheless try to get re-elected for a fourth time.

Cardinal-elect Ticona commented in the 6 June interview on this conflict situation with regard to Morales, saying that he would prefer not to comment on whether or not Morales should be re-elected because “we are friends.” With regard to the 2016 referendum which rejected Morales’ re-election, Ticona abstained from a commentary. Ticona then insisted that Morales and the Bolivian bishops should “mutually respect one another.” “In matters that unite us, we can work together,” he added. These words as spoken in this recent interview seem to have been seen as an episcopal endorsement of President Morales. Since Ticona is soon to be a cardinal, some media present this interview as the opinion of the highest Church authority in Bolivia, thus undercutting the official resistance against Morales coming from the Bolivian bishops’ conference.

Since the Bolivian bishops’ conference had rejected Morales’ attempt at getting permission to be re-elected, they responded soon after this Ticona interview. In their 13 June statement, they refer to “misinterpretations of some statements of the cardinal” which “have been able to create confusion in the public.” The bishops direct the public to the different media statements and pastoral letters that they have previously published. “We reject any attempt to divide or manipulate the Catholic Church [in Bolivia],” they add.

Moreover, the Bolivian bishops also make it clear that the “legitimately elected authorities” of the bishops’ conference – i.e., its President, Vice-President, Secretary General and Permanent Episcopal Council – are “the official voice of the Catholic Church in Bolivia.” Cardinal Ticona, however, “is a member of the Bolivian bishops’ conference,” and he, therefore, has the “right to speak, as a bishop emeritus, in accordance with the bishops’ conference’s own statutes.” But not as the highest authority of the Church in Bolivia, one could add.

As Katholisch.de reports, Evo Morales himself has now also intervened in this matter. While in Russia for the World Cup, he put on twitter some of his specific comments: “My respect, affection, and admiration for my brother Toribio Ticona, Cardinal of Bolivia. Strength! The bishops and Catholics of the base [from the “base communities”], who defend the poor and who work with you, are with you.”

That Morales and Ticona are close could also be seen when Ticona said, at the end of May, that Morales had congratulated Ticona upon his appointment to the cardinalate; the President even announced that he would accompany Ticona to Rome for the ceremony. “He congratulated me and declared that, finally, someone has appointed an indigenous cardinal.” Ticona and Morales had earlier worked politically together and they even even marched together in manifestations. Ticona himself also recently made reference to his stemming from an indigenous farming family, and that this fact might be the reason that he is now being criticized. President Morales, who also stems from an indigenous background, is a revolutionary Socialist politician who once, in 2015, even gave Pope Francis during his papal visit a hammer-and-sickle crucifix as a gift. At that time, this gesture caused much turmoil among faithful Catholics, especially in light of the fact that Pope Francis did not seem to be troubled at all by this symbolic Marxist gift, even though so many Catholics had gravely suffered under Communism.

Additionally, in 2017, Morales had caused much controversy when he started to set up a ban on evangelization (or “proselytization”), something which he later quite ambiguously withdrew. The planned new law had foreseen a penalty of up to 12 years imprisonment if a person tries to convince another person to join a religious organization.

It is noteworthy that Pope Francis and President Morales met each other in person at least five times since 2013.

Allegations of a Double Life

Next to this emerging conflict between Bishop Ticona and the Bolivian bishops’ conference, Ticona has also recently come under pressure due to allegations concerning his private life. As OnePeterFive reported recently, Bishop Ticona came under pressure after the Spanish-speaking website Adelante la Fe revealed allegations that the bishop also has a “wife” and children. While he himself denied such allegations, Adelante la Fe, as well as as other websites such as LifeSiteNews, confirmed the truthfulness of that initial report.

In a new report dated today, 18 June, Miguel Ángel Yáñez of Adelante la Fe has revealed additional information regarding the testimony of “direct witnesses” who knew Ticona and his female companion — named only as “Leonor RG”. The Bolivian newspaper Página siete has now also published an investigative report into the matter, saying that the cardinal designate had sold church-owned land to the aforementioned “Leonor RG”, who “in public…would have presented herself as the ‘wife’ of the cardinal.”

Yáñez also alleges in his new report that Ticona has been using his name in differing combinations for different purposes. While he shows up in the initial decree of convocation of the consistory as “HE Mons. Toribio Ticona Porco”, his official identification card lists him as “Toribio Porco Ticona”. “How important is this?” asks Yáñez. “So much, and it is another element [that is] more indicative in all [that has been] exposed. We have consulted with various legal sources in Bolivia, and all confirm that this practice is not only not common in the country, but is highly irregular and characteristic of people who want to hide things and play with confusion.” [emphasis in original]

Yáñez includes, in his report, highlights taken from the testimonies of various people — including a priest and others from the town of Oruro, where Ticona is said to have lived with his “wife” — making allegations based on first hand knowledge. Among these is the observation of a neighbor of the “couple” (Ticona and Leonor RG), who claims that having been in the house shared by the two, where he saw a “photo where the man that everyone thought was the ‘husband’ appeared…dressed as a bishop with John Paul II.”

No Reaction From Rome

Cardinal-elect Ticona is one of fourteen prelates who is soon to receive the red hat from Pope Francis at the Consistory on 29 June. The next two weeks will show how Pope Francis will try to deal with this grave public estrangement between Cardinal-elect Ticona and the entire Bolivian bishops’ conference, as well as the potential scandal of his alleged double life — a scandal which has, as yet, not been denied by the Vatican even though it has prompted a “discreet” investigation by the Apostolic Nunciature in Bolivia.

This awkward situation at the coming Consistory reminds us of the Consistory of 2017 where one of the Cardinals-elect, Archbishop Jean Zerbo, of Bamako (Mali) was accused of embezzlement of funds, and this was reliably reported only a few weeks before his installment as a cardinal. According to a Catholic Herold report, there had also been been speculations “that Francis might not make Archbishop Zerbo a cardinal following reports that he and two other Mali bishops had opened Swiss bank accounts totalling 12 million euros ($13.5 million).” Archbishop Zerbo did, in the end, attend that consistory, and Pope Francis nonetheless made him a cardinal.

“After the French Le Monde broke the news, Pope Francis did not show any signs of rethinking his nomination of Cardinal Monsignor Jean Zerbo,” says a report of Vatican Insider. Thus, this Pope appears to be somewhat indifferent toward such serious accusations against his Cardinals, as can also be seen in the fact that he still keeps both Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga and Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz in his Council of Nine Cardinals, despite grave allegations of misconduct against both men. Indeed, he just met them again, from 11-13 June in Rome, for their Council meetings.

Time will tell if the pattern of special treatment for prelates favored by Pope Francis will repeat itself at the June 2018 consistory.

Steve Skojec contributed to this report. 

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