Pope Francis greets Cardinal Marc Ouellet during the sign of peace at a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in this Jan. 6, 2020, file photo. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Ouellet’s Rome service comes to an end

  • February 1, 2023

Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s long career in the highest ranks of Church leadership is coming to a close. Pope Francis has accepted his resignation, sending him off into retirement.

Upon becoming a bishop, Ouellet, like all Roman Rite bishops, submitted a letter of resignation to the Pope John Paul II and his successors to come into effect when he reaches the age of 75. Whether that letter is accepted on the 75th birthday or the bishop remains in his position is a decision of the sitting pontiff. In Ouellet’s case, Pope Francis kept him on three years beyond his 75th.

The bulletin from the Vatican Information Service on Jan. 30 announcing Ouellet’s retirement gives no reason for accepting his resignation at this time. Any statement from the Vatican on the timing or reasons for a bishop’s retirement is extremely rare.

Ouellet has faced accusations since last summer of inappropriate sexual advances on two adult women. The first accusation was made in a civil suit. The second, which was forwarded by the Archdiocese of Quebec to Pope Francis, was made public by a French magazine citing an anonymous complaint. There have been no criminal inquiries or charges, and separate Vatican investigations found no evidence to proceed further with the allegations.

The Cardinal has vehemently denied both claims, co-operated with the Vatican investigations, and said he has “nothing to hide.” 

He has launched a libel action against the first of his accusers, seeking $100,000 in damages.

At both the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI and the 2013 election of Pope Francis, the French Canadian cardinal was a favourite candidate of conservative forces in the Church. Ouellet always said he feared the office.

“It would be a nightmare,” Ouellet told Quebec’s Le Soleil newspaper in 2011. “I see the work the pope has to do. It’s maybe not so enviable. It’s a crushing responsibility.”

While often touted as a hero of culture war conservatives, particularly for his uncompromising opposition to abortion, Ouellet is no knee-jerk reactionary or idealogue, said his old friend John Zucchi.

“People have often typified him as kind of a stalwart conservative within the Church. But they should ask themselves, ‘Why is it, if he’s supposed to have that kind of position and Pope Francis is such a liberal Pope, why has the Pope kept him around, so close to him, the number three man in the Vatican?’” Zucchi said.

When former nuncio to the United States Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó made baseless, wild accusations against Pope Francis, accusing him of protecting the sexually abusive Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2018, Ouellet mounted a vigorous defence of Pope Francis in a scathing public letter to Viganó.

“Come out of your clandestinity, repent of your revolt and return to better sentiments to the Holy Father, instead of aggravating hostility against him,” Ouellet wrote in a publicly released letter. “... How can you celebrate the Holy Eucharist and pronounce his name in the canon of the Mass? How can you pray the holy Rosary, and to St. Michael the Archangel and the Mother of God, when you condemn him whom She protects and accompanies every day in his heavy and courageous ministry?”

As Archbishop of Quebec and primate of Canada 2002 to 2010, Ouellet played a large role in confronting the history of Quebec Catholicism and the Church’s diminished role in Quebec society ever since the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s ended the Church’s pre-eminent role operating virtually all social services, most hospitals and a vast network of schools on behalf of the provincial government. 

In 2007, in a letter published in Quebec’s French-language newspapers, Ouellet apologized for clerical presumptions and attitudes, prior to 1960, which favoured “anti-Semitism, racism, indifference to First Nations and discrimination against women and homosexuals.”

“He was often seen as the Quebec boy who moved away, came back later on and couldn’t understand Quebec,” said Zucchi, a McGill University history professor and member of the Communion and Liberation Catholic lay movement. “That’s how he’s seen here. But I think he was really clued-in to Quebec.”

A scholar of theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, active in the circles around the theological journal Communio, who had taught theology in Colombia and in Rome, Ouellet’s perspective on the Church in Quebec has never been limited to Quebec, or Canada, or even North America, said Zucchi. 

“He’s one of the few people who had a sense of the Church the way the Pope would want people to understand it — of the Americas, broadly speaking,” said Zucchi. 

After studying theology at Montreal’s Major Seminary 1964 to 1969, Ouellet’s intellectual gifts quickly took him to teaching and further study. He was a young professor at the Major Seminary of Bogotá, studied philosophy at the Angelicum in Rome, took a doctorate in theology from the Gregorian University. His academic career included a term as rector of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Edmonton and chair of dogmatic theology at the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family. By 1995 he was a consultor for the Congregation for the Clergy and in 1999 was appointed to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments

Since 2010 Ouellet has headed up the Dicastry for Bishops, vetting bishop candidates before presenting recommendations to Pope Francis. The dicastry also handles abuse accusations made against bishops.

Ouellet will be succeeded at the Dicastry for Bishops by Augustinian Bishop Robert Francis Prevost, an American missionary currently serving as Bishop of Chiclayo, Perú. Prevost will take over April 12.

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