Cardinal Marc Ouellet: The Canadian who could be pope

Brian Bethune on the papal contenders
Pope Benedict XVI greets Cardinal Marc Ouellet, of Canada, president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, left, at the beginning of a mass for Latin America, in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Monday, Dec. 12, 2011. Pope Benedict XVI says he hopes to travel to Cuba and Mexico sometime before Easter and wants to strengthen the faith and encourage Catholics there to seek love, justice and hope. During the Mass honoring Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, in his homily, the 84-year-old pope said he hoped his trip would help build a society "rooted in the development of the common good, the triumph of love and the spread of justice." (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)
The Canadian who could be the next Pope
Riccardo De Luca/AP

Maclean’s writer Brian Bethune is in Rome for the conclave. Watch for his reports. 

For all his forewarning, Pope Benedict XVI, whose eight-year pontificate has been one long series of surprising moments, managed to stun the world once again. And once the Roman Catholic Church absorbed the news that its supreme pontiff was abdicating—an announcement fitly followed, only hours later, by a bolt of lightning striking the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica—it was clear that Benedict had set the stage for the most wildly unpredictable papal election in centuries.

It’s never been easy to guess in advance how 100 or so men, huddled in the Sistine Chapel under Michelangelo’s famous ceiling, would vote. Now, the uncertain effects of the Church’s changing demographics, the protracted lead time to the electoral conclave, the precedent of the resignation itself and the unsettling presence of an ex-pope responsible for elevating to the College of Cardinals many of the same men who will choose his successor, have sent Vatican watchers scrambling. And as they try to reassess their established ranks of papabiles—literally, “pope-ables,” those reckoned to stand an electoral chance—only one name seems to emerge in every serious list’s top three: Canada’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet, former archbishop of Quebec City and now, as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, one of the most powerful men in the Church.

Born in 1944 in La Motte, a tiny town in western Quebec’s Abitibi region where his 90-year-old mother still lives, Ouellet is a major figure in the Canadian church. And not simply because of his Vatican position, although being responsible for vetting for the pope the appointments of more than 5,000 bishops around the world certainly doesn’t hurt. Among his fellow Catholics, even those who deplore his often contentious battles with secular Quebecers, there is a deep-set appreciation of his spirituality and personal qualities. Michael Higgins, a Canadian now teaching at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., and no fan of hidebound conservatives, recalls encountering the cardinal a few years ago at a progressive francophone church in New Brunswick, “where the priest allows women at the altar and there’s dancing and so on. I thought, ‘Well, this will be an interesting clash of cultures,’ but the conservative cardinal got right into the swing of things, interacting naturally, like a parish priest, with the congregants. There is considerable depth to Ouellet.” The cardinal, Higgins says, is no careerist, but—using a term of high Catholic praise—“a prayerful man.” Adds Msgr. Frederick Dolan, Opus Dei’s Montreal-based regional vicar for Canada, “Any time I meet him, I think he’d make a great pope.”

Outside the Church, though, Ouellet has often been a polarizing figure. He has held proudly to the tenets of Quebec’s arch-conservative past, decades after the province itself has moved on. It’s no surprise that non-Catholics see him as an anachronism in his native province—home to liberal abortion laws, laissez-faire sexual mores and the country’s largest percentage of unmarried couples. What marks Ouellet is his willingness—glee, even, for some critics—at expressing his disapproval, a tendency that endeared him to Benedict, a personal friend, and the Vatican’s conservatives.

In May 2010, while speaking at a conference of the pro-life group Quebec Life Coalition, Ouellet said he was against abortion in any instance, including rape. “Taking the life of an innocent is always a crime, morally,” he said. “This creature is not responsible for what happens to him; it’s the rapist who’s responsible.There is already a victim. Does there need to be another?”

Ouellet’s reductionist argument suggesting a rape victim, in getting an abortion, was guilty of murder, sparked a month of near-unanimous condemnation in Quebec media. Members of the then-Liberal government and the Parti Québécois opposition competed to denounce the cardinal. The president of the province’s women’s rights association said Ouellet’s words were “profoundly offensive” and “an insult to human intelligence.” A La Presse columnist wrote how the “fundamentalist” Ouellet was also against euthanasia, and that he hoped the cardinal “dies after a long and painful sickness.”

Yet the cardinal didn’t shy away from his comments. Far from it. “I met him three weeks after he made the comments, after he endured that public lynching,” says Quebec Life Coalition president Georges Buscemi. “He was like a giddy schoolboy at what his comment had provoked, the hysteria it caused. He reminded me of a kid who had thrown a rock through a window. Like, ‘Uh oh, what did I do?’ He wasn’t quite like that, but almost.”

For his part, Montreal Archbishop Christian Lépine, whom Ouellet helped appoint in March 2012, said Ouellet’s words about abortion simply reflect the Church’s beliefs. “In the Bible, St. Paul says that you must convey the teaching of Jesus Christ in full, with all its implications, without cutting it into pieces,” Lépine tells Maclean’s, “even if it’s hard to take for some.” Less than a month after his comments, Benedict appointed Ouellet to head the Congregation for Bishops—a position that has meant he’s already left a long-lasting mark on the Quebec Church. Since 2010, the cardinal has had a hand in the appointment of six new bishops and three auxiliary bishops there.

Ouellet’s background is steeped in the values and outlook of Quebec before the liberalizing wave of the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s. Karol Wojtyla, the man who became Pope John Paul II, was an adept soccer player. Ouellet’s game was hockey. “He was a forward, he scored a lot, and when he got the puck he knew what to do with it,” says Father Jacques D’Arcy, who attended Montreal’s Grand Séminaire with Ouellet. Today, D’Arcy is the provincial superior of the Society of the Priests of Saint-Sulpice, the continent’s oldest priestly order, of which Ouellet is a member. The cardinal, D’Arcy says, was never shy about promoting the bedrock Catholic beliefs into which he was born, even as the province itself was abandoning them.

Ouellet left Quebec to teach philosophy at the Sulpician college in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1970. After a stint in Rome and another in Colombia, he returned to Montreal as a professor of philosophy at the Grand Séminaire in 1976, when the province’s secular rejection of the Catholic Church was at its peak. This pro-gay marriage, pro-euthanasia, pro-choice “new” Quebec, D’Arcy says, “profoundly hurts him, and one of his preoccupations when he was in Montreal was how to reintroduce the principles of the Gospel here. Fundamentally, French Canadians are very Catholic, but there was an abandonment of faith. People lost the substance of the Gospel, the sense of life.”

Ouellet’s solution was to speak out, loudly. Ordained a bishop in Rome in 2001 and appointed archbishop of Quebec City in 2002, his first public move was to call for a return of catechism to Quebec’s classrooms. Quebecers, he told a journalist not long before Pope John Paul II appointed him cardinal in 2003, have a “crass ignorance” of religious matters. By instructing Catholic doctrine to a generation of lapsed Catholics, D’Arcy says, Ouellet was trying “to save our culture by returning to the principles of Christianity.”

In 2005, Ouellet publicly denounced the Liberal government’s gay-marriage bill, calling it a “threat to religious freedom.” He further condemned divorce, the ordination of female clergy and the practice of “collective absolution”—confession for an audience, essentially. Collective absolution was part of the wave of changes inspired by the Second Vatican Council in an attempt to make the church more approachable. Ouellet, a supporter of the council, nonetheless drew the line at the open airing of sins. Such a thing, he said, must be done in private, with only a priest and God as witnesses. In 2007, when the province was at the height of its crisis over so-called “reasonable accommodations”—what compromises should be made for different religions and cultures in Quebec society—Quebecers, largely allergic to the worship of their own deity, didn’t have much time for anyone worshipping others.

It’s not surprising that Ouellet took a different tack. In a public statement, the cardinal deplored the elimination of religion from Quebec’s public sphere. “Quebec’s real problem is the spiritual void created by a religious and cultural rupture, a collective amnesia, that has caused a crisis in families and education, that has left its citizens disorientated, unmotivated, prone to instability and stuck to transient, superficial values.”

Archbishop Lépine says he was heartened by Ouellet’s declaration. “No one should have religion forced on them, but when you go to the point of excluding religion, I think you’re going too far. It was a declaration to all Christians to live their faith in all its aspects and convictions,” he says.

In an interview with L’actualité in 2008, Ouellet said his declarations, like the one at the reasonable-accommodation commission, were part of his strategy to re-engage his straying flock. “In the context where we were discussing all matters of religion in Quebec, there was a need for a good smack to wake up the Catholics,” he said. And for all the criticism from secularist Quebecers, Ouellet’s penchant for preaching rock-ribbed Catholic values has had results that have heartened the Church, according to Father D’Arcy. “There’s been an uptick in the number of seminary students from Quebec in the last few years”—75 at last count at Petit Séminaire diocésain de Québec, which Ouellet founded in 2008.

All of this—the fearlessness, the championing of Catholic identity, and the results—are key factors in Ouellet’s electoral prospects. But other cardinals can claim much the same—and burgeoning numbers. On the streets of Rome, natives and foreign-born Catholics are championing a wide variety of candidates. Or simple wish lists, such as that of Betty D’Eletto, sales manager at Savelli Arte e Tradizione, a massive emporium of stamps, religious statuettes and ornate rosaries, located a stone’s throw from St. Peter’s Square. She’s hoping for an American pope, she tells a Maclean’s correspondent, so that “more rich American tourists will travel to Rome,” and buy her goods. Sales have suffered under Benedict, a sales associate complains, adding that tourists still seek medals commemorating Pope John Paul II. “I say I don’t have that one—but I have one with Benedict. And they say: ‘Oh no, I don’t want it!’ ”

The feeling that the new pontiff may be, and perhaps should be, a non-Italian is widespread among Romans met on the street, in marked contrast to the situation in 1978, when a 456-year string of Italian popes was broken by John Paul’s election. Msgr. Kevin Irwin, a professor of liturgical studies and sacramental theology at the Catholic University of America, recalls the silence when the name was announced. “Everyone was expecting an Italian name; all the Italians knew the candidates by first name. The person beside me turned and said: “Is he black? Is he from Africa?” I said, “No, he’s from Poland.” This time, Catholics are scanning more distant horizons, with African and Asian names—such as Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana—joining Ouellet’s.

Pope Benedict brought all this energy into existence on Feb. 10, when, speaking to a gathering of cardinals, he announced his resignation, effective at 8 p.m. Rome time on Feb. 28. Echoing almost everyone, but probably unaware of the actual lightning strike at St. Peter’s, Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins called it “a bolt from the blue.” But in retrospect, at least, the 85-year-old pontiff had been signalling his intentions so clearly for more than three years that it’s likely only his sudden death could have prevented him from stepping down.

No one paid much attention in 2009 when Benedict visited the tomb of his predecessor, Pope Celestine V, who reigned 700 years ago and is best remembered today as the last pope to voluntarily resign. The visit was intriguing enough, but what happened next was extraordinary, according to George Ferzoco, a lecturer in the department of religion and theology at Britain’s University of Bristol. “Benedict said some prayers and then he removed from his vestments his pallium (a woolen scarf), one of the greatest symbols of the pope’s authority and power, and placed it on Celestine’s casket and left it there. He was expressing solidarity.” A year later, Benedict—who now struggles to walk even moderate distances and has a pacemaker—was even more forthright when he remarked to a German journalist that papal abdication for reasons of health was a valid option.

This was why he was resigning, Benedict told the cardinals that morning. His ministry demanded “strength of mind and body, strength which, in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfil [my office].” Among those with analogous responsibilities, Benedict’s reasoning and decision invoked sympathetic acceptance, as national leaders, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Angela Merkel, chancellor of Benedict’s native Germany, paid tribute to the pope.

Within the Church, too, many shared the admiration expressed by Cardinal Collins and others. “I was astonished, although I suppose I shouldn’t have been,” the cardinal told Maclean’s. “The pope made the humble judgment that the present situation needs more strength than he has. It was an admirable decision.” The timing was particularly brilliant, both personally and for the Church, adds Opus Dei’s Dolan. “I believe Pope Benedict was thinking he has so much he wants to say stored up in his noggin and only so much time to get it down on paper. Now we will have a new pope by Easter, meaning the cry of Habemus Papam (We have a pope) may well go up during the dramatic rites of Holy Week. Springtime, too.”

But not everyone agreed with Collins and Dolan. Anura Gurugé, a non-Catholic computer analyst who runs a New Hampshire-based website dedicated to gathering in a single site the “dynamics, politics, traditions and precedents” that will factor into the next papal election, says his inbox is already clogged by emails from angry traditionalists who believe resignation is never an option. “One began with ‘Christ did not come down from the cross when the going got tough,’” Gurugé says, a sentiment he shares. “This was not a good day for the Catholic Church; Benedict’s resignation has confirmed the suspicion he was a weak pope who only looked strong earlier in his career because he served under a strong pope, John Paul II.” That may spark a reaction against what the cardinals perceive as Benedict’s wishes, he argues.

The anger comes from the unsettling novelty of the resignation, according to Robert Gahl, an American priest and professor of ethics at Rome’s Pontifical University of the Holy Cross. “You have to understand,” says Gahl, “that despite the earlier papal resignations, voluntary and forced, this is the first time that this exactly has ever happened—the first time in the history of a Church in which virtually everything has already happened—a fully active, fully acknowledged and accepted pope leaving his position.”

Gahl, who respects Benedict’s decision, adds that many traditionalist Catholics “see the pope as a father, and you can’t resign from being a father.”

Michael Higgins, for his part, sees more questions than answers. “What happens to a retired pope? With so many of the cardinal electors raised by him, will they be thinking of his wishes? Is Benedict looking for a continuation of his papacy through another man? Think about it: if Pius XII had resigned, would John XXIII have called the Second Vatican Council?” A good question: if the felt presence of Pius had moved the cardinals away from their choice of the liberalizing John XXIII, it is very possible that the council, and all the momentous changes it brought to the life of the Church, would have never been.

The pope is dead (figuratively), long live the pope. If there is uncertainty about the rightness of Benedict’s action, there’s widespread agreement that it will play some kind of role in choosing the next pope, becoming one more complicating factor in a watershed papal conclave.

Massive change is inexorably creeping up on the Church. When Syrian-born Pope Gregory III died in 741, most of the Middle East and North Africa, once Christian heartlands, had already passed under Islamic control. For most of the next millennium, as the Anglo-French Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc put it early last century, “the faith is Europe and Europe is the faith.” With Gregory’s death more than 12 centuries ago, the papacy passed into European hands to stay, seemingly forever.

But the Roman Catholic Church’s centre of gravity has been shifting to the global South for a century. In 1900, about 200 million of the world’s 266 million Roman Catholics lived in Europe, the U.S. or Canada. Most of the rest, 53 million, were in Latin America, leaving only a relative handful scattered across Asia and Africa. There are now about 1.1 billion Catholics, two-thirds of them outside Europe and North America. In parish churches from European hamlets to small-town Canada, young clergy hail from India and Africa. In Nigeria, the remarkable priest factory that is Bigard Memorial Seminary has an enrolment of 1,100, equivalent to a fifth of the seminarians in the entire U.S. Catholicism, in fact, is exploding in Africa as nowhere else, where more than 150 million of the continent’s 800 million people are members of the Church. What Catholic writer John Allen calls in The Future Church the “most rapid, and sweeping, demographic transformation of Roman Catholicism in its 2,000-year-old history” will soon mean that only one in five Catholics will be a non-Hispanic Caucasian. Soon, perhaps after next month’s conclave, the man at the top will reflect this new reality.

But change percolates slowly in vast hierarchical structures. Half of the 117 cardinals eligible to vote for the new pontiff are still European, and many more come from elsewhere in the developed world. And there are more subtle factors in play as well. “Benedict has set the bar high for his successors,” says Gahl, “in terms of intellectual power and physical vigour.” Benedict’s precedent, Gahl believes, will force the electors toward younger candidates. Although Gahl declined to specifically link that notion with any of the more commonly suggested papabiles such as Milan’s Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71, or Ouellet, 68, computer analyst Gurugé didn’t hesitate. Benedict’s resignation may have marked a bad day for Catholicism but, Gurugé adds cheerfully, “it was good news for your guy.”

At 68, Ouellet might once have been seen as too young, as Gurugé puts it: “What if he lives to 90? Now that Benedict has introduced the idea of term limits, one of his major drawbacks is gone.” The other remains: he’s not Italian. “The Italians have had 34 years of foreigners in what is, after all, an Italian bishopric. They will try to get it back.” But they no longer have the weight in the college to do it alone, Gurugé adds, and if the other Europeans think it’s time to move from their home continent, they may be happiest with a baby step—meaning to another developed nation. Given that he feels no American has a chance—“it’s the opposite of the fears about J.F.K., that the Vatican would have an outpost in the White House; this time, it’s that the White House would run the Vatican”—that sentiment, too, would favour Ouellet.

For all their ethnic diversity, the cardinal electors, each raised to his position by Benedict or John Paul, are ideologically in sync with one another, focused on restoring and strengthening traditional Catholic identity. No one in the worldwide Church has poured more effort into that than the former archbishop of Quebec, and with the political winds blowing at his back, Cardinal Marc Ouellet may well sail into history.


Papal contenders

Some are far closer to the Roman Catholic Church’s highest office than others, but serious candidates are now found worldwide

Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, 68

Country: Austria

The liberal standard bearer’s chances may have disappeared after a virtual revolt among lower clergy

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, 68

Country: Canada

The powerful Vatican official, admired by all Church factions and not a European, is the only man to appear in every top-three list

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, 55

Country: Philippines

Once too young to be considered, the Church’s rising Asian star has suddenly become a dark horse possibility

Cardinal Peter Turkson, 64

Country: Ghana

A combination of the right age, Vatican experience and a charismatic personality have made him the top African possibility

Cardinal Angelo Scola, 71

Country: Italy

The archbishop of Milan, a theologian specializing in human sexuality and bioethics, is the leading Italian candidate.

Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, 70

Country: Honduras

Despite his conservative position on sexual and gender issues, his economic stances may prove too leftist for Western cardinals