Smart, well-read, multilingual, Cardinal Marc Ouellet had always been earmarked for great things at the Vatican.
However, as a man who once said that the burden of being pope would be “a nightmare,” it left doubts on whether the high-profile Canadian cardinal had the mettle to be the spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
Such ambivalence meant that, in the days before the conclave, the onetime front-running Cardinal Ouellet was increasing described as a long shot to become the latest successor to Saint Peter.
As prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, which handles the appointment of bishops, Cardinal Ouellet knows his way around the Vatican.
But, although friends say he is warm and congenial in private, there have been questions about whether he is too much of an introverted intellectual like Benedict XVI.
Like the previous two popes, Cardinal Ouellet has been strongly influenced by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar.
Father Von Balthasar was a prolific writer who cannot be easily pigeonholed as conservative. However, said University of Nottingham theologian Karen Kilby, he is favoured by tradition-minded Catholic clerics because his work rejects modernity and he wrote forcefully about church authority, the meaning of celibacy for priests and the need to reject the ordination of women.
In practical terms, it left Cardinal Ouellet struggling in the past as he tried to explain why he so bluntly rejected secularism, gay marriages or abortion, even in case of rape.
In the sole pastoral posting of his career, as archbishop of Quebec City, he showed himself to be tone deaf to the secular views of a developed nation.
He defended church doctrine in a staunch, unwavering fashion, repeatedly complaining that Quebeckers had lost their spiritual anchors. He spoke in punchy soundbites, complaining about “secular fundamentalism” or “dictatorship of relativism.”
His views on how to deal with allegations of sexual abuse by clerics were also contested.
He is no stranger to the issue. One brother, Paul, was was convicted in 2009 of sexual assault involving two minors. A year ago, during a pilgimage in Ireland, he met victims of clerical child abuse and asked for forgiveness on behalf of the church.
At the same time, his name was among a list of 12 cardinals that SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), the largest U.S. advocacy group representing abuse victims, said should not be considered for pope.
Citing British press reports, SNAP raised questions about how Cardinal Ouellet handled the departure of Scotland’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien, who resigned after confessing to “sexual misconduct.”
In the sole interview he gave before the conclave, with CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge, Cardinal Ouellet reluctantly admitted that his name had been bruited as a papable candidate and that he had to be ready for such an eventually.
He also reminded the anchor of the old saying that those who enter the conclave as papal favourites often leave as cardinals. In Cardinal Ouellet’s case, the saying was right.