Canada is a paradox. An enormous, wonderful, annoying, beautiful, successful, irritating, marvellous paradox. Wonderful and successful because it gives the vast majority of its 35 million people, with their two official languages and myriad ethnic backgrounds, a stable, secure, and intensely comfortable and enjoyable life. Beautiful because of a largely unparalleled natural splendour. Annoying and irritating because, while being politically complacent and even bland, it also publicly funds abortion at every stage of pregnancy, was the first Anglo-Saxon country to introduce same-sex marriage and has prosecuted, even persecuted, those who oppose it, and its mainstream media and establishment interpret orthodox and committed Christian belief as being eerily American and by extension unwelcome and even undesirable.
It’s from this stew of a culture and country that the man currently considered to be a favourite to become the next Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church originates. Cardinal Marc Ouellet is a proud Canadian, who once described the idea of being Pope as “a nightmare”. But this illustrates his humility more than anything else. It is humility that is so obvious to those who meet the man from La Motte, a small town of around 500 French-speakers in Quebec. He was ordained in 1968 and spent much of his priestly life as a professor. In 2002 was named Archbishop of Quebec and Primate of Canada. He has degrees in theology and philosophy, is a former chairman of dogmatic theology at a branch of the Pontifical Lateran University and speaks five languages. He was made a cardinal in 2003 and seven years later the head of the Congregation of Bishops, nominating bishops throughout the world.
Fr Stefano Penna is vice-president of the Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Alberta, and one of the finest Catholic communicators and thinkers in the country. “Cardinal Ouellet is a man who knows personally what it is like to be a faithful Catholic when one’s family and society are at best disinterested and often hostile to the Church,” he explains. “A deeply pious man of breathtaking intellectual scope and sensitive heart, he, along with Cardinal Scola, is perhaps the closest to Pope Benedict in temperament and background.” This could be both an advantage or a disadvantage to his becoming the next Holy Father: is it time for someone similar to Pope Benedict or for a man with other, different qualities?
We should not, however, confuse conservatism or orthodoxy with naïveté or lack of worldliness. Cardinal Ouellet has not had it easy in Canada, and if the national palate does not relish the Catholic flavour, Quebec is almost allergic to its taste. Fr Penna says: “Ironically, his election would probably mean little to a Quebec – a place Pope Pius XII called ‘the most Catholic country in the world’ – but would expand beyond Europe the Church’s focused and calm witness to fidelity to God in a secularised world.” He’s absolutely correct. Quebec was once intensely Catholic and is still regarded as being so by some who don’t know contemporary Canada – even in Rome. The province may have a nominal Catholic majority, but it is, in fact, more anti-Church and secular than any other part of the country, and numerous surveys reveal an attitude towards life and sexuality, marriage, and Christian morality and ethics quite staggeringly permissive and opposed to Catholic teaching. From a 1960 Church attendance of 90 per cent, only six per cent of Catholics now attend Mass, and the recently elected provincial government intends to introduce a “secular charter”.
Ouellet took hold of the position in Quebec with no illusions and a full and empathetic understanding of what Church leadership in an essentially post-Catholic environment is all about. He was willing to build bridges, but not to cut corners.
Peter Stockland is a Catholic journalist, a former editor of the Montreal Gazette, Quebec’s main English-language newspaper, and now editor of Convivium, a journal of faith and public life. He says: “While he seems a very cerebral and gentle person, no one should ever underestimate his courage. He spoke out plainly, forcefully and very publicly against abortion several years ago. When the political roof caved in, as he must have known it would, he stood tall and strong and absolutely refused to back down from a campaign of vile media vilification and even a formal vote of censure by Quebec’s national assembly. He showed, as too few prelates are willing to do these days, what it means to not only stand up for Catholic faith, but stare down its enemies.”
Cardinal Ouellet also described gay marriage as “a big crisis, not only a moral crisis, but an anthropological one. We don’t know what it means to be a human being any more.”
He opposed the proposed practice of general absolution that was being pushed by liberal clerics and Catholic activists, and enabled and empowered serious and genuine Catholics while simultaneously announcing to Church critics that the Catholic hierarchy would not be pressurised by the political establishment. This was in a Canada where the Bishop of Calgary was once threatened with a Human Rights Commission inquiry merely for echoing Church teaching regarding marriage and sexuality. Cardinal Ouellet also embraced the challenges of the abuse crisis, which were especially poignant in Canada. He was open and contrite towards victims – many of whom testified to his overwhelming humanity – but refused to allow critics to exploit the monstrosity as a whip with which to beat the entire Church. He was criticised for this, but the attacks were unfair and baseless. He was, in brief, the best man for the job, and a cardinal in a time of crisis who left Quebec and the Quebec Church a far better place.
So in terms of intellect, temperament, experience, theology and personal warmth and public strength, he is a compelling candidate. Canada is also considered sufficiently non-American and ersatz European to satisfy concerns about the end of European influence or the dominance of the United States. So it just might happen, and snowy Canada may find its place in the sun – or at least a sweltering Roman summer.