What he didn't say

  • November 30, 2007

{mosimage}Cardinal Marc Ouellet appears to be taking a page from Calgary Bishop Fred Henry’s book when it comes to media coverage. The archbishop of Quebec has found himself on the front pages of daily newspapers well outside his province talking about — wait for it — religion.

First it was his challenge to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission on Reasonable Accommodation. In a well-reasoned brief he demonstrated the maxim that people who lose their religion fill the vacuum with all kinds of other beliefs. He diagnosed the newfound allergy to religious differences in some parts of Quebec society as a natural result of a people who have lost their faith — in this case, their Catholic faith.

That mild foray into public debate generated such heated response that the cardinal felt compelled to go where angels fear to tread. He released to the media an open letter to the people of Quebec  in which he apologized for the sins of past church leaders. He asked for forgiveness for instances where church leaders oppressed women and homosexuals, where clergy sexually abused those in their charge, where people were denied access to work and where the needs of First Nations people were ignored.

For this humility, he was excoriated all over again. His sincerity was questioned, he was accused of being naïve or out of touch. Opponents of the Catholic Church dragged out all the old bugbears about women’s ordination, abortion, etc. What we didn’t see was any spirited defence of the cardinal.

Yet the cardinal’s letter is entirely defensible. First, it should be defended for what it didn’t say. The cardinal was  not apologizing for his religious beliefs. He wasn’t saying the doctrines of the church were flawed or needed reformation. Now that would have been news indeed!

Nor was he speaking for all bishops across Quebec, or the other parts of Canada. Though he is primate of the Catholic Church in Canada, this title is not recognition of juridical status. He is not the “boss” of other bishops, though some newspaper headlines implied as much. He is the first bishop in historical standing in the country; as such he has a powerful pulpit from which to speak. But his words are not binding on other bishops.

Though his statement represents his own views and no one else’s, the cardinal’s words can, with some changes for different historical context, apply to the rest of the country. A stance of humility and recognition of our own fallen nature is not a bad way to begin a dialogue with other Canadians about the place of religion in this country.

Does such a stance invite scorn from the usual suspects? Undoubtedly. Is this a necessary risk — “un beau risque,” as the late René Lévesque liked to say? Oh, yes. It underlines that the Catholic Church does not “impose” its beliefs on society, but rather, “proposes.” This is not weakness, but true evangelization

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