Ouellet’s impact on Quebec a work in progress

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  • July 14, 2010
Cardinal Marc OuelletOTTAWA - History has yet to determine the legacy Cardinal Marc Ouellet has left Quebec, say those who know him.

But his longtime friends reveal a much different picture than the mainstream media’s depiction of a man ambitious for the papacy, a hardliner out of touch with Quebec and a harsh “ayatollah” who will be remembered for opposing abortion.


Ouellet was appointed the Vatican’s Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops by Pope Benedict XVI June 29. He will remain apostolic administrator of the Quebec City archdiocese until he takes on his new role in September.

When Ouellet became archbishop of Quebec in 2002, people initially viewed him, mistakenly, as an outsider, as “the man from Rome” sent to straighten things out, said Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast.

McGill University historian John Zucchi described Ouellet, 66, as an insider who not only lived through the Quiet Revolution — he was at the Grand Seminary in Montreal during its “cusp” — but as someone who deeply felt its impact upon his immediate family. Only he, of eight children, and his 88-year old mother still practise the Catholic faith.

Ouellet’s years as a Sulpician missionary in South America and his studies in Rome under the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthazar exposed Ouellet to different perspectives, Zucchi said. When he returned to Quebec in the late 1980s to teach at Montreal’s Grand Seminary, he “came back with a new objectivity on the situation in the Church,” making him both an insider and an outsider.

Zucchi said Ouellet’s return as archbishop was not that of a “hit man to fix everything,” but a recognition that there are “no quick fixes in the Church,” that draconian measures could not change things, only humility and paying the price of a long, arduous path to restore the place of religious faith.

“He never managed to carry the majority of the Quebec bishops, or he didn’t manage to do that on some key issues,” said McGill University theologian Douglas Farrow.

Many of the Quebec episcopacy he described as “still deeply mired in the aftermath of the Quiet Revolution” that required the Church to adjust to the new laicism and agnosticism of Quebec society.

“(Ouellet) wasn’t of that sort,” Farrow said. “He pointed out that Quebec society cannot flourish, not for long, without recovering its roots and its attachment to the Christian Gospel and he was unafraid to make that claim even on very controversial matters.”

Ouellet is not against Quebec’s desires, Zucchi stressed, but saw that she is missing the salvation she longed for, the true fulfilment that could only be found in Christ.

Both Zucchi and Farrow say the Quiet Revolution did not reverse the coziness Catholic religious leaders had with government during the Duplessis era. The Church had been the right hand of government under Duplessis, Farrow said, but this “hand in glove” relationship after the Quiet Revolution changed so “the government was the leading hand now and the Church was going to go along with the government.”  

In Ouellet’s criticism of the relativist Ethics and Religious Culture course the province imposed on all Quebec schools, he pioneered a new attitude towards the relationship of Church and state, Farrow said.

“He may not always have gone about it in the most diplomatic ways, but he certainly has gone about it with courage and comprehension of the situation,” he said.

Ouellet’s stance recalled the courageous and tenacious battle of Quebec’s first bishop, Bishop Francois de Laval, with Governor General Frontenac over the liquor trade that was destroying the lives of native people, Farrow said. History will judge whether his stature is comparable to Laval’s, Farrow said. Three previous generations of bishops, however, have provided many “counter-examples,” he noted.

Ouellet also paid a price for his uncompromising defence of human life. Zucchi said he has never seen any Church leader attacked so derisively and viciously when earlier this year he defended the Church’s pro-life stand.

“The silence of the hierarchy in Quebec spoke volumes,” Zucchi said, who questioned why none came forward publicly to show solidarity with him.

The attacks against Ouellet pointed to a fear in Quebec society of “anyone who has the courage to speak the truth,” he said.

One bishop who did stand publicly with him was Prendergast who travelled to Quebec City in late May to face the Quebec media at a joint news conference.

“Given that many bishops prefer to lay low on controversial topics, he appears harsh for simply speaking the truths of our faith without compromise,” Prendergast said.

But Prendergast, who has known Ouellet since the days they were both young priests who never expected to become bishops, dismissed claims the cardinal is a “moralist” or an ayatollah. He described him as a shepherd.

“He believes that only those who are evangelized, (who) have had an encounter with Christ personally or through contact with His Church, will be able to accept His teaching on the life issues.

“But given that Quebecers have fled the Church, he needs to get their attention so that they will come to inquire of Christ and one way is that of his counter-cultural preaching pointing out to people that having the highest suicide rates, broken marriages and wounded families are not indicators of the ‘good life’ people thought they were acquiring when they bought into the secularist agenda,” Prendergast said.

Ouellet will be remembered for the impact of the 2008 Eucharistic Congress and for his reaching out to youth through the Montee Jeunesse/Youth Summits, Zucchi said.

“It’s not a massive group of young people, but a significant following, whose fruits we will see in the future,” he said.

In the next two to four years, half of Quebec’s dioceses will become vacant due to bishops’ reaching retirement age. In his new role, Ouellet will play a key role in finding bishops to form a “united episcopate that is capable of taking on the challenges that now have to be faced,” Farrow said.

Many say it will be hard to find someone of Ouellet’s stature to replace him as archbishop of Quebec and primate of Canada. While his promotion is widely seen as good for the Church, he will leave a gaping hole in Quebec.

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