The Vatican's Northern Light

Cardinal Marc Ouellet Named Prefect of Congregation for Bishops

Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec speaks at a gathering for priests at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome June 10.
Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec speaks at a gathering for priests at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome June 10. (photo: CNS photo/Paul Haring)

QUEBEC CITY — A Canadian cardinal has been put in charge of the office that helps the Pope choose bishops in Latin-rite dioceses around the world.

The June 30 selection of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the archbishop of Quebec, as prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, marks the first time the congregation will be headed by a North American. He succeeds 76-year-old Italian Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.

Cardinal Ouellet, 66, has also been appointed president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, of which he has been a member for a number of years.

As archbishop of Quebec, Cardinal Ouellet was primate of Canada. He has pulled no punches on issues such as same-sex “marriage,” euthanasia and abortion. He has defended Pope Benedict XVI against allegations of his involvement in cover-ups of sexual abuse by clergy. He has also opposed the Quebec government’s recent imposition of a relativistic religious studies curriculum in public and private schools. Recently, he drew condemnations from feminists and senior Canadian politicians for opposing abortion in all cases.

Critics now say his uncompromising position will be bad for the Church, while others say it is just what is needed in someone picking tomorrow’s leaders.

“He really doesn’t care what anyone says about him,” said Montreal Catholic journalist Alan Hustak, who has spent his career covering secular and religious news in Quebec and Alberta. “He hasn’t turned the Church around in Quebec, but he has got people talking about and reassessing the role of the Church and the faith.”

Most of Quebec’s clergy “just don’t want to rock the boat,” Hustak said. “They are afraid the few Catholics who are still contributing to the collection plate will quit. The Quebec hierarchy sees Cardinal Ouellet as a one-man band. But they said that about John Paul II as well, didn’t they?”

Cardinal Ouellet was born in northern Quebec in 1944. He went from teacher’s college to seminary and after just three years as a parish priest began a 30-year career teaching theology and running seminaries in South America, Quebec and Alberta, and finally Rome itself, where he held the chair of dogmatic theology of the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family at the Lateran Pontifical University.

In 2001 he was ordained a bishop and appointed secretary to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. He also served on the Commission for Religious Relations With the Jews.

In 2002, Pope John Paul II named him archbishop of Quebec and the following year a cardinal. He serves on the Vatican congregations overseeing liturgy, clergy and Catholic education and is also a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Proud of Eucharistic Congress

At a press conference in Quebec City after his appointments were announced, Cardinal Ouellet was asked if Pope Benedict XVI had chosen him because he could rely on him to “pick bishops to the right.”

“The Pope has known me for years,” the cardinal responded. “He has great trust in me. He knows I will support him. I have supported him in difficult times.”

Another reporter asked if he was worried that he would be remembered for the furor over his recent remarks on abortion. He responded that he hoped he would be remembered for the International Eucharistic Congress that the Quebec Church hosted in 2008. “The historians will have to sort it out,” he joked.

Criticism of the appointment came predictably from within and without the Church in Quebec. Francoise David, head of the feminist organization Quebec Solidaire, worried about who would replace him and other retiring bishops, given that Cardinal Ouellet would be recommending the choices.

“I am very concerned that the bishops who are appointed to the Quebec people will be very rigid, very close to the ideas of Rome, while for years we have had in Quebec bishops more conciliatory and closer to modern ideas,” David said.

Looking beyond Quebec, Alexa Conradi, the president of the Federation of Quebec Women, worried about the kind of bishops Cardinal Ouellet would likely get appointed in places like Latin America and Africa, where they would oppose access to abortion.

What’s more, she said, “the cardinal is assuming a position where he could have an influence over the nomination of the next pope. It seems clear we are not entering a progressive era in the history of the Catholic Church.”

Hustak relates how a Montreal bishop told him that Cardinal Ouellet was “not collegial. He does not consult us before he says something.”

Coming Vacancies

But Douglas Farrow, a professor of religious studies at Montreal’s McGill University, says Cardinal Ouellet is “a very good choice; he is very well qualified; he speaks several languages, has experience teaching in Europe and South America; he is courageous in declaring Church teachings.”

Even the cardinal’s experience of isolation from many of his fellow bishops in Quebec will be useful experience for him, says Farrow, since it should show him that the bishops he appoints will need to be strong and independent-minded in the face of resistance and criticism from inside and outside the Church.

The naysayers within the Quebec Church “don’t cause me to lose sleep at night,” Farrow said. “They say he isn’t collegial, but if he consulted the other bishops, they would just tell him to shut up.”

The real objection to Cardinal Ouellet isn’t that he is independent, says Farrow: “It’s much more fundamental. His critics are people who are either unfamiliar with authentic Church teaching, disagree with it or are afraid to teach it.”

“You find the same phenomenon in Europe and the U.S. — so-called ‘cultural Catholics’ who see the Church as a part of the culture with the function of supporting and strengthening it, and not being an independent critic of it,” said Farrow.

As for the criticism that Cardinal Ouellet lacks compassion, Farrow said, “This is an old argument that you cannot be compassionate and yet hold to Church teachings. The Church has always taught there is no contradiction.”

Farrow also expressed the hope that Cardinal Ouellet’s experience with the Quebec Church would enable him to make good selections to fill the many bishoprics in “la Belle Province” coming vacant in the next decade: “I expect the Quebec episcopate to look very different in 10 years.”

“It is a difficult time for the Church everywhere, and we will need high-quality bishops,” says Farrow. “It’s good knowing the man in charge of selecting them is someone who knows what it takes to be a good bishop.”

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.