Ouellet apology step in 'a journey of dialogue’

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  • November 30, 2007

{mosimage}OTTAWA - Cardinal Marc Ouellet’s apology to Quebeckers for the past sins of some Catholics in that province has provoked an unprecedented response — positive and negative — across the country.

Some have described it as a risky but prophetic act of leadership. Others have called it a calculating political move in his battle against the mandatory ethics and religious culture course Quebec plans to impose on public and private schools next fall. Others say the apology did not go far enough. And some reports have painted him as isolated, a lone voice not supported by his brother bishops inside Quebec or the rest of Canada.

On Nov. 21, Ouellet, writing as archbishop of Quebec and primate of Canada, issued an open letter to Quebec newspapers inviting Catholics “to perform an act of repentance and reconciliation” that he promised would continue during Lent as a lead up to the 2008 Eucharistic Congress in Quebec to be held in June.

“I recognize that the narrow attitudes of certain Catholics, prior to 1960, favoured anti-Semitism, racism, indifference towards First Nations and discrimination against women and homosexuals,” Ouellet wrote. “The behaviour of Catholics and certain episcopal authorities with regards to the right to vote, access to work and promotion of women, hasn’t always been up to par with society’s needs or conformed to the social doctrine of the church.

“I also recognize that abuses of power and cover-ups have for many tarnished the image of the clergy and its moral authority....” He then apologized.

The apology letter came three weeks after his Oct. 30 brief to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission studying reasonable accommodation of religious minorities in Quebec. Ouellet told the commission Quebec’s uneasiness with newcomers, its miniscule birth rate, high suicide rate and other social ills stemmed from a spiritual void created by the collapse of Catholicism. Ouellet said the response to this brief prompted him to write the apology letter. In it, he asked whether Quebec’s search for spirituality was impeded by “the excessive authority of the church.”

Reaction to the letter dominated news coverage in Quebec and quickly spread to the rest of Canada. Ouellet, who had flown to Rome after delivering the letter, told CBC News the next day he was stunned by the reaction.

“I am aware that some people are not satisfied with what I did, or maybe they criticize what I did,” he told CBC News Nov. 22 from Rome. “But it is a first step in a journey of dialogue in order to understand each other better.”

Many news stories featured negative reactions from representatives of women’s groups and gay rights organizations who, while grudgingly accepting the cardinal’s apology, criticized it for not going far enough. They criticized the church’s stand on women’s ordination, contraception and same-sex marriage.

McGill University professor of religion and public policy Dan Cere described some of these reactions as “bizarre.”

“If they are expecting the Catholic Church to transform itself into the United Church of Canada that’s not going to happen,” he said. “The church would end up metamorphosing into another church. But I think that’s what some folks are hoping for.”

Cere also defended Ouellet’s choosing to apologize for the acts of the church before 1960, because after the Quiet Revolution the church has been so marginalized in Quebec it has had little impact.

Saint Paul University theology professor Catherine Clifford described the media response in Quebec as “a hermeneutic of suspicion.”

“I think he’s sincere in trying to take ownership of unfortunate chapters of history in Quebec society.”

She challenged the widespread perception that Ouellet’s apology was unusual, pointing to numerous other public apologies in Canada by bishops and bishops’ conferences for residential schools abuses and the sexual abuse of children. Ouellet acknowledged being inspired by the example of Pope John Paul II, who in March 2000 asked for forgiveness for past sins of church members.

Some called the apology tainted or calculating because Ouellet  reiterated his support for parents to have a say over the kind of religious education their children receive in the schools. Quebec plans to impose an ethics and religious culture course next fall on all schools public and private. Ouellet has waged a public campaign against this course.

Luc Gagnon, president of Quebec Campagne-Vie, a pro-life organization, and editor of Egards, a socially conservative journal, described Ouellet as “a prophetic voice in our time” and a “religious leader who defends the interests of the faithful against the aggression of the state.”

Gagnon said Ouellet’s “mea culpa” was an invitation for Quebeckers to get past the resentment they have towards their Catholic heritage: “Don’t be angry any more about your own religious tradition, but act as an adult, be mature,” Gagnon said.

While many news outlets treated Ouellet’s title as primate as if he were the official leader of the Catholic Church in Canada, others played up his isolation from the other bishops in Canada. The Ottawa Citizen, for example, said church officials “sought to distance themselves” from Ouellet, noting the silence of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec (AECQ) president Bishop Martin Veillette of Trois-Rivieres described Ouellet’s letter as a “personal initiative.”

In recent years, the AECQ has preferred to “try to speak together,” Veillette said, noting that Quebeckers are not used to individual interventions from a bishop. However, he pointed out that Ouellet did not set a precedent with his personal brief to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. Both Rimouski Bishop Bertrand Blanchet and Veillette presented personal briefs.

CCCB President Archbishop James Weisgerber was travelling and unavailable to comment, but communications director Sylvain Salvas explained the conference never comments on statements by bishops or regional conferences, because each bishop is independent in his diocese.

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