A prophet hath no honour in his own country, Jesus is reported to have said.
So perhaps it is fitting that when the conclave begins Tuesday to pick the man who will run the church Jesus’s disciples founded, a Quebecker named Marc Ouellet will be among the leading candidates. The local flock is not exactly rallying to back their cardinal.
It’s not just that Cardinal Ouellet is a controversial figure in secular, liberal Quebec, where his conservative Catholic orthodoxy against abortion, birth control, female ordination, gay marriage and secular education caused clashes during his seven years leading the church in the province.
Even Quebec bishops and priests were split during his tenure and have failed to display much public enthusiasm for his candidacy.
Many who have worked with the cardinal or studied his career say he lacks obvious leadership qualities for a man who may have to lead 1.2 billion Catholics through a hornet’s nest of sexual-abuse scandals and an attempt to revive the church in rich Western countries.
“He doesn’t meet people on their ground. He’s incapable of understanding. He’s a man who decides he needs to speak truth, and he doesn’t listen. In his time in Quebec, he didn’t reconnect the church to anyone,” said Louis Rousseau, a theology historian at the Université du Québec à Montréal. “If I were a sworn enemy of the church, I would push for the election of Cardinal Marc Ouellet. He’s going to be a disaster.”
During his time as archbishop of Quebec City, from 2003 to 2010, the cardinal alienated some clergy and faithful with high-handed decision-making as he displayed his disdain for the lax and permissive direction the church took during his prolonged absence. He had been out of the country for most of the previous 30 years before taking the job.
In the most shocking episode, Quebec’s association of bishops publicly distanced itself from the cardinal in May, 2010, after he declared not even rape could justify abortion. The association issued a statement calling for a rational discussion on the topic free of blanket judgments. Association president Monseigneur Martin Veillette, now retired, said the cardinal was “out of sync” with Quebec. Five months later, Cardinal Ouellet was back in Rome.
It was a rare public rift in a church that puts enormous faith in its leaders.
While the church has been in long-term decline throughout most of the Western world, few places have matched the precipitous fall in Quebec.
Nearly six million Quebeckers still identify themselves as Catholic, but a recent Leger Marketing poll conducted for the Association for Canadian Studies said only 36 per cent of Quebeckers described themselves as having any attachment to any religion. Other surveys in recent years have suggested less than 20 per cent of Quebec’s self-described Catholics attend church.
Cardinal Ouellet, 68, missed much of Quebec’s progressive and secular revolution that moved the church out of its dominant role in education, health care and social services and saw Quebec women gain reproductive rights.
He was a teenager or cloistered in seminary for most of the 1960s, and out of the country for most of the next three decades. As liberals consolidated their hold on institutions, including the church, Cardinal Ouellet was teaching and studying in South America and Rome.
In 2003, he was assigned to return to Quebec where he found, to his dismay, a church that had recently failed to defend religious instruction in schools and was avoiding confrontation on social issues.
“In Rome it was judged that the church in Quebec gave up too much ground too quickly, that they gave in to modernism and secularism. He arrived from Rome with a critical view of the church in Quebec, but he didn’t invent the diagnosis,” said Marc Pelchat, the former rector of the faculty of theology at Laval University – an institution that lost its own Catholic affiliation in 1970.
Top on Cardinal Ouellet’s list was to find a way to arrest the removal of religion from the public-school system, which had taken effect in 2000. The cardinal wanted the province to at least set aside time for religious instruction by the church.
The idea was rejected in the general public, but even bishops offered little support, said Mr. Pelchat, who took part in talks on the matter with Cardinal Ouellet. “We tried to explain to him why we’d gotten to the point, but in his fights, he was often alone. He was not looking for dialogue with others, he made a lot of decisions with very little consultation.”
Cardinal Ouellet’s time in Quebec was not completely bereft of conciliation, but those moments still failed to reach people. In 2007, he apologized for past “errors” of the church, including anti-Semitism, indifference to natives, and discrimination against women and homosexuals. Given his long-standing positions against reproductive and gay rights and continuing abuse allegations in the church, the apology became more fodder for criticism.
Mr. Pechat says Cardinal Ouellet “shook things up, but couldn’t do much to budge what was happening.”
Those who worked directly with the cardinal, including Mr. Pelchat and André Belzile, a Quebec City psychiatrist and long-time diocese committee member, say his cold public image is a contrast with the warm man they encountered.
“He’s a great theologian and is enormously competent, so he has the tools to be pope. With time, he’s learned to surround himself with good people. He knows the geopolitical situation of the church inside and out. Not many bishops have a wider vision of the faith in this world,” Dr. Belzile said. “And Quebec was good training. He’s learned, gradually, to listen, to pay attention.”
While the vast majority of Quebeckers are unlikely to return to church any time soon, the selection of Cardinal Ouellet will still likely stir a brief blast of popular support. Everybody loves a winner from their hometown.
“I don’t think it would give any big swing to Quebec Catholicism,” Mr. Pelchat said. “People will be proud, it will be a mark on global history, but it’s a bit like Celine Dion. There are lots of people who don’t care for her music, but we’re proud she’s a great success.”
Louis Rousseau said it is just not in Cardinal Ouellet’s character to lead the church in the new direction that would revive it in the province.
“His dog is dead in Quebec,” he said.