Ouellet’s fast rise & papal prospects

When Marc Ouellet was sent from Rome in 2002 to be the new archbishop of Quebec City, it marked an astonishing rise for the former seminary rector and professor of theology. With Tuesday’s announcement that Pope Benedict has named Cardinal Ouellet to the third most senior post in the Vatican, he becomes the highest-ranking Canadian in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.

Cardinal Ouellet is now the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, meaning that he will head up the Vatican department that makes recommendations to the Pope for the appointment of bishops worldwide. While the Pope does get involved personally in the most important appointments, the sheer number of dioceses around the world means that the Congregation for Bishops’ recommendation is usually accepted.

Ten years ago Cardinal Ouellet would have hardly imagined himself a bishop, let alone the Pope’s chief advisor on who should be made one.

It was in March 2001 that then Father Ouellet, a gifted professor of theology whose work was known to then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, received a call summoning him to appear at the Apostolic Palace the next day.

He was then teaching across Rome at the Lateran University. Given the urgency of the summons and his work as a professor, he spent the night wondering whether something he had taught or written was under investigation. To his shock, he was told instead he would be ordained a bishop in less than three weeks, and appointed to the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. Less than three years later he was the cardinal archbishop of Quebec.

His path most resembles the rise of another gifted theologian — Joseph Ratzinger. The current Pope was a German university professor in 1977, and by 1981 had become Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith — the Church’s chief doctrinal officer. Cardinal Ouellet’s appointment will intensify speculation that he might follow Ratzinger’s own path to the papacy itself; indeed there was already such talk in 2005 after Pope John Paul II died.

Leave the future for the future, though. The appointment is significant for Canada in the present.

First, the effect on Quebec will be significant. While the appointment indicates papal favour upon Cardinal Ouellet’s willingness to challenge the increasingly secular, narrow and intolerant public discourse in Quebec, his absence will leave an enormous hole.

For some 40 years now, Quebec’s bishops have more or less accommodated themselves to the secularization of Quebec, co-operating even in the elimination of Christianity in the schools. When Cardinal Ouellet challenged the secular fundamentalism of the Quebec consensus, he often stood alone, his brother bishops opting to remain silent — most recently in the debates about abortion. His first task in his new job will be to find his replacement and it will not be easy to do.

Second, for Canada as a whole, it means that the appointment of bishops here will receive special attention at the highest level of the Church. Cardinal Ouellet’s move to Quebec in 2002 was itself part of a trend toward more confident, evangelical and publicly courageous bishops in Canada. One can expect that he will continue to look for the same in recommending bishops, not just for Canada but worldwide.

Third, Canada has often had three cardinal electors (those under 80 who are eligible to vote in a conclave). With Cardinal Ouellet’s departure for Rome, there is now only one — Cardinal Turcotte in Montreal. Archbishop Thomas Collins of Toronto will likely be made a cardinal this fall. Given that Cardinal Ouellet’s successor in Quebec may not be made a cardinal — Cardinal Ouellet’s predecessor was not — it opens the possibility of a second cardinal outside of Quebec, where the Canadian Church’s current vitality and future potential lies. It is now plausible that Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, who has been given important global assignments in recent years, may join Archbishop Collins in being admitted to the sacred college. After all, it was Archbishop Prendergast who was at Cardinal Ouellet’s side in June during the height of the abortion controversy.

Above all, though, it is a day of great pride for the oft-beleaguered Church in Quebec and the increasingly confident Church in Canada, that one of our own has been so chosen. Quebec’s loss is Rome’s gain.