The High Ground

Can the faith of Quebec’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet restore the Catholic Church to innocence?

Illustration by Stephen Appleby-Barr

Louise Brissette’s sprawling one-storey farmhouse sits nestled on a wooded hill off the road near Saint-Anselme, Quebec, less than an hour from Quebec City. It is the day after Christmas, a Sunday afternoon, and despite the bracing sub-zero cold, inside it is warm, cozy, and utterly chaotic. A short, sturdy woman in her early sixties with cropped silver hair and bright blue eyes, Madame Brissette waves me in through the back door to a foyer piled with dozens of boots, coats, and scarves, and then to a long wooden table in the kitchen. There is a paraplegic boy strapped into his wheelchair and wriggling in the corner. A little girl with giant, wandering eyes shyly approaches me and attempts to introduce herself, with great difficulty. In the first room along the hallway, past the kitchen, toddlers stumble and crawl among plastic trucks and airplanes and blocks; in the next, slightly older kids gleefully scream as they play Wii Sports. At any given time, Brissette’s family includes two dozen or more children, ranging in age from infants to teenagers, with cognitive and physical disorders from barely recognizable to severe.

Brissette has devoted her life to helping the most vulnerable, in an expression of her deep Catholic piety. After a tour of the main house, we take a walk along a path through the snowbound woods, past simple crosses marking the graves of children under her care who have died, to a bungalow that houses a chapel. Set in the main room, with folding chairs arranged in front of it, the altar is a slab of local granite topped with a cross of lashed together birch branches. It is the kind of makeshift altar one imagines early Quebec missionaries praying in front of. It is also where Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the former archbishop of Quebec and primate of Canada, often sought refuge from the clamour of public life.

“I felt connected to him from the first time I asked him to come baptize one of the infants,” Brissette tells me. “He was very close to the children. He is a man of emotion as well as wisdom, and he loved their simplicity and transparency.” Indeed, children are central to the vision of the Catholic Church: they not only represent future generations of the faithful, but they also provide an example of the love and trust human beings are capable of before being warped by the demands, and temptations, of adulthood.

Children are also central to perhaps the worst crisis the Church has faced since the Reformation, one that makes the more recent secularization of Western societies seem pale by comparison. Over the past decade, as many of the literally tens of thousands of victims assaulted by priests in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s go public, sexual abuse scandals have infected dioceses across Europe and both North and South America, and the most recent incidents, stemming from the systemic molestation of children in Ireland’s ubiquitous Catholic schools, are by far the worst. Contrary to the impression propagated by the media, however, it is no more likely that your local parish priest is a predatory serial pedophile than, say, the principal at your children’s elementary school may be. The problem is that priests are meant to be held to higher moral and spiritual standards than other people are; they are supposed to have been called to their vocations by God. The scandals have gravely damaged the credibility of the entire priesthood, as well as that of Church leaders, who protected abusers by either ignoring complaints against priests altogether, or by transferring them to new dioceses with minimal counselling, without so much as alerting the secular authorities.

When Pope Benedict XVI called Cardinal Ouellet to Rome last June to serve as prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, one of the most powerful positions in the Vatican (as well as appointing him president of the Pontifical Commission on Latin America), he put him in a position that will be critical to any enduring solution to sexual abuse within the Church. The prefect oversees the final vetting of candidates for bishoprics around the world before the pope makes the final choice; those bishops, in turn, are ultimately responsible for the priests in their dioceses. Ouellet was most likely placed in such an important and sensitive position because he is a respected and worldly North American leader who has not been tainted by scandal, and because he has been a trusted intellectual ally of the conservative elite that has dominated the Church since the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978. In fact, Vatican insiders agree that Ouellet is on the short list to become the next pope, should the eighty-four-year-old Benedict XVI die anytime soon. The open question is whether the Church’s current uncompromising approach will eventually serve to rebuild the trust and respect of an increasingly disillusioned laity.

Standing at the far edge of the piazza in front of the Quirinale Palace in late January, soon after arriving in Rome to speak with Ouellet, I can see out over the city’s dense old quarters to the majestic dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, built on one of the Church’s holiest sites, where Saint Peter was reputedly buried after being crucified circa AD 67. Viewed from a distance, at dusk, it seems to sit over busy, disorderly, sensuous Rome in austere, paternal judgment. It has the sombre nobility and sublime melancholy of power, and is as distant from Madame Brissette’s chapel in rural Quebec as one could imagine.

Ouellet may have made a point of being accessible, especially to young people, while in Quebec, but since he became prefect of the Congregation of Bishops he has stopped giving media interviews, even to the Catholic press; it was said that he had entered a period of reflection. In the months leading up to my trip, I made repeated attempts to contact his office: calls to the Vatican at four in the morning Toronto time were answered, if at all, by an elderly-sounding woman who spoke Italian; faxes went unanswered. Just two days before my flight to Rome, I received a brief, formal missive from Monsignor Serge Poitras, adjunct undersecretary for the Congregation of Bishops: “His Eminence will receive you.”

I arrive at Saint Peter’s Square, the main entry point to Vatican City, in the early afternoon. Among the throngs of tourists and pilgrims stands a huge group of Africans decked out in bright orange traditional attire, as well as a cluster of Korean nuns, both indications of how the Church’s centre of gravity has shifted away from Europe and North America. On one side of Bernini’s great colonnades, I receive my credentials at an elegant press office before navigating a crowd control maze and a security check that would match the ones in any airport. On the other side, dodging lineups at washrooms and gift shops, hopping over more security fences patrolled by Swiss Guards in tricolour uniforms who give the impression of ticket takers to a ride at Disneyland, I reach yet another office, where I surrender my passport and am finally issued an official pass and a name tag.

Compared with the bustle and noise of Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican City seems eerily quiet, like the headquarters of a multinational corporation. The Apostolic Palace is bordered by a garden with a chapel, Greek sculptures, a grove of palms, and flower beds. A dark sedan glides around a circular; a priest with a briefcase walks by determinedly. I find my way to the Casa di Santa Marta, a $25-million luxury residence built by John Paul II, where I am to meet Ouellet. With its creamy yellow walls, moulded ceilings, and chandeliers, the place has a reserved eighteenth-century elegance, but it is also equipped with all the high-tech amenities. A receptionist emerges from a booth filled with phone consoles and flat screen computer monitors to escort me to a well-appointed sitting room.

I had already heard a great deal about Cardinal Ouellet, and not just from Madame Brissette. A shy young mother I approached in the Quebec City Cathedral the day after Christmas summed him up as “very innocent, very saintlike,” and Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto told me, “He’s a very gentle, humble man, a holy man, but you really must meet him to understand.” So I’m disarmed when the man who comes through the door is light of foot, with a bemused, almost boyish smile on his face. Dressed in a pair of black slacks, a sweater, and a priest’s collar, with a crucifix hanging prominently around his neck, the sixty-six-year-old cardinal greets me in a Québécois accent by saying, “So, why did you want to see me—are you Catholic? ”

Marc Ouellet was born in La Motte, into a big religious family. The Quebec he grew up in was steeped in Catholicism through and through, but he did not feel his vocation to become a priest early on. “It started when I was an adolescent, through the study of the stars,” he says, his gaze behind wire-rimmed glasses at once piercing and sympathetic. “I had these questions about the cosmos. I was searching for the grand scheme of things, and I wanted to give my life to something important.” He had a supportive family—his grandfather felt a particular affection for him and discerned something special in him before he did—as well as the guidance of a good local priest. One of the seminal moments in his move toward a life in the basilica, however, was completely fortuitous. “When I was seventeen, I broke my leg playing hockey—I was a healthy boy, and I liked sports!” he says. “So I started meditating for fifteen minutes a day, which helped me listen to God.”

He entered the Grand Séminaire de Montréal when he was twenty, in 1964. Catholic seminaries provide intensive training in philosophy, theology, the history of the Church, and the nature of the liturgy, among many other subjects, but their ultimate purpose is not the mastery of academic disciplines. Aspirants live and work in a small, insular community (during the 1960s, the Grand Séminaire typically housed around 200 students) and, under the close supervision of the faculty, the experience is designed to deepen their spirituality, and to discover whether they have an authentic vocation for the celibate life of the priesthood. Ouellet thrived. “I had clear confirmation of God’s call,” he says, “and the rest was just prayer and learning to be true to my commitment.” He ended up becoming a member of the Society of St. Sulpice, an academically oriented order that put him on track to teach, which appealed to his natural intellectual curiosity as well as to his specific spiritual gifts. “I had noticed that some of my fellow seminarians were not connecting spiritually in the way that I was, and I wondered how they would maintain their commitment. I wanted to help them.”

He spent much of the next decade teaching in Colombia and Quebec, before beginning his Ph.D. in theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 1978, the first year of John Paul II’s twenty-seven-year reign. The Church was still in the midst of a struggle over its identity, which had come to a head in 1962, when Pope John XXIII formally convened the Second Vatican Council, in response to a growing sense that the Church and contemporary society had grown too far apart. One of the pivotal documents that resulted from Vatican II is Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope), which was intended to illuminate the Church’s role in modern secular society. For some, Gaudium et Spes had immediate and radical consequences: it meant that the Church’s focus should shift from the universal to the local; that it should not repudiate modernity but should find a way of adapting to it; and that it should not simply be involved in charity for the poor but should also be proactive in addressing the causes of social and economic injustices around the world. By the end of the 1960s, however, important figures, notably the future Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, concluded that this reading of Vatican II compromised the Church’s specifically spiritual mission with worldly ideologies like Marxism, and that true revitalization required a return to the purity of the early Church.

When Ouellet chose to write his doctoral dissertation on Hans Urs von Balthasar, widely regarded as the greatest Catholic theologian of the twentieth century, he was allying himself with this call to the original sources of the Church. Over the course of more than 100 books, von Balthasar endeavoured to articulate a space for religious experience within modern life, weighing in on some of the Church’s most controversial issues. He argued against ordaining female priests, because doing so would compromise the role of Mary as a tender, compassionate presence through whom Christ could be experienced; and for priestly celibacy, on the grounds that the role required a radical openness to Christ, inconsistent with having other priorities. For von Balthasar, Christ is central to the notion of what it means to be a person, and therefore the figure of Christ (and the Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) is crucial to every aspect of an authentic life. It should come as no surprise that this resonated with Ouellet, who had always seen his calling as principally contemplative.

But becoming one of the world’s leading specialists on the thought of von Balthasar also provided Ouellet with an introduction into an elite, conservative Vatican intellectual circle that included two former professors: Ratzinger and John Paul II. Ouellet was an active contributor to Communio, the conservative theological journal founded by von Balthasar, Ratzinger, and the great French thinker Henri Lubac; eventually, Ouellet taught at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute, acted as a consultant to the Congregation for the Clergy, and served as secretary to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. By then, he was widely viewed as being groomed for even higher positions, and he was: in 2002, John Paul II called him to become archbishop of Quebec.

The Quebec Ouellet returned to was almost unrecognizable. With the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, which he had spent in the relative isolation of the seminary, the Catholic Church no longer controlled the educational system, and church membership had plummeted from 99 percent in the late 1950s to 16 percent by 1990. The pill and abortion were legal, marriage was in decline and divorce on the rise, and the birth rate was low. Like the rest of Canada, Quebec was flooded with immigrants, many of them Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists; it was no longer even remotely a homogeneous society. “We [Catholics] had never fought for our faith, because it was always part of our culture,” says Ouellet, “so at the time we didn’t fight for our faith, and I think we lost our balance. From a religious point of view, Quebec is a disaster.”

As the archbishop of Quebec and the primate of Canada (he was promoted to cardinal in 2003, giving him a vote in the election of the pope), he had the authority to make some changes. “I tried to take public positions, saying the government was very left wing, with a project for marginalizing the Church,” he says. He also challenged what he saw as lax practices within the clergy. One of his first acts after he returned to Quebec was to reverse the practice of communal absolution, common across the province partly because there were not enough priests, in favour of the more traditional individual confession. He hardly did so unilaterally—he went out to his dioceses and consulted with the priests—but, as Bishop Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, who was recently appointed to replace Ouellet as archbishop, says, “It’s one thing to consult, another to make a decision,” and feathers were inevitably ruffled. Members of the Quebec priesthood were set in their ways and resistant to change, especially when it came from an outsider. “People saw me as a man from Rome,” Ouellet says, “but really I was a man from Jerusalem.”

The response among the clergy to his pronouncements on communal absolution was, however, nothing compared with the public reaction to his statements on marriage, family, and education. In his fourth and most important book thus far, Divine Resemblance: Marriage and Family in the Mission of the Church, he argues that marriage between a man and a woman is a sacrament that participates in the Trinity, and whose underlying purpose is the creation of families. Needless to say, he stridently opposes both abortion and same-sex marriage. In a speech he gave at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in July 2003, six months into his tenure in Quebec, he stated, “One pregnancy in four ends in abortion. This is truly a disaster that one must avoid, not only out of respect for life, but also out of compassion for these distraught women who pay a heavy price for a decision made in haste.” While his views echo official Church doctrine, they are also clearly heartfelt, with not a small hint of nostalgia for his upbringing in rural Quebec. “There used to be these big families with five or six children,” he comments. “People don’t do that now. It takes faith to have children, and people don’t have it anymore.”

While there are certainly those in Quebec who find his version of the faith liberating—“Cardinal Ouellet has made me less afraid of speaking the truth,” Lacroix told me—his coverage in the press, notably Le Devoir and La Presse, has been almost invariably negative if not outright hostile, accusing him of wanting to return what had become a relatively affluent, progressive, multicultural province to the backward days before the Quiet Revolution. Prominent scholars like Gilles Routhier, an ordained priest and a professor of theology at Laval University, regard Ouellet’s approach as both delusional and destructive. “He is a man with an idea of truth that is abstract,” explains Routhier, “and that’s a problem. When he deals with history and it doesn’t correspond with his ideals, he thinks he can condemn it or destroy it or change it. I think he wanted to refound the Church here, to start it from zero, but you can’t do that.”

The Mass at the Quebec City Cathedral on the day after Christmas is not nearly as crowded as the one on Christmas Eve, but still there are young parents and children everywhere, bundled up against the damp cold. After Mass, at the front of the cathedral, Archbishop Lacroix, in full priestly robes, has one child on his lap and is surrounded by several more who are re-enacting the Nativity. It is a beautiful, innocent scene. Yet watching Lacroix bouncing the children on his knees, it is impossible to think about anything except the sexual abuse scandal.

Lacroix is of course acutely aware of the tragic irony of this, especially in Quebec, where the Church may have a contentious history of political and social dominance not unlike the one it has in Ireland, but where there has yet to be a major sexual abuse scandal. In fact, many of Ouellet’s successes in the province involved energizing its youth: the 2007 International Eucharistic Congress, set to coincide with Quebec City’s 400th anniversary, was partly organized by young people and was attended by more than 25,000 faithful from around the world; the annual Diocesan Youth Day and conference are increasingly well attended; and Ouellet himself founded two new seminaries in Quebec City. Still, the bitterness many feel toward the Church runs deep. Websites have sprung up that help people write “letters of apostasy” to their dioceses, revoking the validity of their baptisms and disassociating them from the Church. At the Quebec City airport, I stopped to chat with an older woman, and when I told her I had been there doing research for an article on Cardinal Ouellet, her immediate reaction was “The bastards!”

On top of everything else—the abuse, and the failure to address it—the public now wants a response from the Church that it is not getting. Standing at the foot of the stairs leading to Casa di Santa Marta’s residences after our interview, Ouellet remarks, “I had to decide whether I would make an exception and meet with you, or whether you just wanted to ask the seven questions every other reporter asks.” I hadn’t asked those seven questions, because I already knew the answers: Ouellet will see to it that the Church has strong bishops who possess great integrity and can maintain tight control over the priests in their dioceses, and who can be trusted to immediately turn over credible complaints to the secular authorities.

As for an explanation, in a 2007 open letter to Quebec’s Catholics, Ouellet grouped the molestation of children with numerous other sins and abuses of power, including anti-Semitism, that have afflicted the Church. And in a Christmas address delivered last December, Benedict XVI argued that one cannot understand the scandals apart from a society that is sexually permissive and prone to treating people as things, and that values self-serving pleasure at all costs, as though the abuse of nine-year-olds in Catholic schools were the result of the sexual revolution and consumer capitalism. Far from believing that the scandals undermine the Church’s legitimacy, conservative figures like Benedict XVI and Ouellet consider them to be among the many human failures that have beset the institution over the course of its history.

Taking the long view—the 500-year view—they acknowledge that there will be periods of crisis when the Church will contract dramatically, and while they may promote renewal in places where its fortunes are on the wane, their job is not to keep the numbers up but to remain true to its original vision, as expressed in the Gospels, the letters of Saint Paul, and the writings of the Church’s early fathers. This is perhaps why, though he now works beside one of its most important cathedrals, Ouellet found special solace in front of Madame Brissette’s birch wood cross: Catholicism, for him, isn’t about the grandeur of Saint Peter’s but about a return to the innocence of the human spirit. A brilliant and humble man, he understands that the directness of his approach might well further alienate those who are already disillusioned, and that this may create the impression that he is out of touch with the realities of contemporary life. But he has to believe people will come to understand that the way we live now is, in many ways, shallow and unsatisfying, and that the Church can provide a higher sense of purpose. It may well be that the key to the renewal of the Church now rests in reconnecting with the simple beauty of its sweeping claims of universality and ancient sources, in comparison with which today’s scandals will seem a dark, passing aberration.

This appeared in the June 2011 issue.

Daniel Baird
Daniel Baird is a regular contributor to The Walrus, Canadian Art, and Border-Crossings.
Stephen Appleby-Barr
Stephen Appleby-Barr is a member of the Toronto art collective Team Macho. In March 2011, he exhibited his work at the Pulse Contemporary Art Fair in New York.