Michael Valpy: The long odds against a Canadian pope

Smart, organized and well connected within the church hierarchy, Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet is a legitimate contender for pope, Michael Valpy writes. But he also has certain failings that will likely make the voting cardinals think twice.

Quebec's Cardinal Marc Ouellet, not always a great communicator

Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet gets looked over as he arrives for prayer at St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican on Wednesday. (Max Rossi / Reuters)

The papabili — the insider term for the possible successors to Benedict XVI — will be known in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel the moment the first-ballot results are announced in the conclave to elect a new pope.

Until that time, as Toronto's Cardinal Thomas Collins pointed out before boarding his flight to Rome recently, it's all media speculation (plus British and Irish bookmaker odds) as to who are the front-runners for the shepherd's crook of the 266th Bishop of Rome.

Perhaps a dozen cardinals will receive one or two votes each from their brother princes of the church.

A handful may get four or five. And then there will be the cardinals with 20 votes, 30 votes — they'll be the guys in the horse race, one of whom eventually will get the two-thirds necessary to become pope.

If the bookies and the fantasies of the Canadian news media have substance, Cardinal Marc Ouellet of La Motte, Que., will join the first-ballot gallopers, almost certainly the first Canadian ever seriously considered as leader of the world's one billion-plus Roman Catholics.

The big question, though: Why would two-thirds of the cardinals choose him?

A moral teacher

Perhaps their priority is to elect a man who will be a powerful spiritual and moral teacher to the world — prime attributes for a pope and attributes attached to Benedict XVI and his predecessor John Paul II (the former a theologian, the latter a philosopher).

In that case they will likely know that Cardinal Ouellet, along with Benedict in 1972, founded Communio, considered one of the most important journals of Roman Catholic thought.

They also will know that the cardinal, who spent most of his adult life as an academic, was closely associated with Switzerland's Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the leading Catholic theologians of the 20th century until his death in 1988.

Balthasar challenged what he considered to be the anti-Christianity of Western modernism and believed God could conquer godlessness — appropriate lines of thought for someone like Ouellet, who spent eight years as archbishop of a hyper-secularized Quebec.

If they want someone who knows, and can take control of, the machinery of the Curia, the centralized administrative apparatus of the Catholic Church, they can look to Ouellet, too, for these attributes.

In 2010 he was appointed by Benedict as prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, the important Vatican department that oversees the selection of bishops throughout the world

On the other hand

If, on the other hand, the voting cardinals don't want another introverted intellectual like Benedict, they should know that, by most accounts, Ouellet is another introverted intellectual like Benedict.

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If they want to end European and Vatican domination of the papacy, and look for leadership where the church is growing — in Africa and Latin America — they'll consider that Ouellet spent 10 years on missionary assignments in South America and speaks fluent Spanish.

Except why would they pick someone who did visiting work in South America when they can choose the real thing — from a number of South American cardinals also bruited as papabili?

If they want a communicator who can breathe new life into the church, if they want a pastoral shepherd who can heal the church's rifts and re-engage the flock gone missing — Europe today is considered secular and the last U.S. census reported the largest religious group in the country is ex-Catholics — they'll likely look at Ouellet with arched eyebrows.

For he is a cardinal who touched off open criticism from some of his own priests in 2005, when, as primate of Canada, he said the Canadian church would not baptize the children of same-sex parents if both parents sign the baptism certificate.

He also supported bishops who penalized Catholic politicians who voted in favour of same-sex marriage by limiting their participation in their parish churches.

Later he faced an uprising from Catholic religious communities who published an open letter stating the Canadian church should ordain women and married men and give full communion to homosexuals as well as divorced and remarried Catholics.

In 2010, he outraged Canadians across the country by saying abortion is never acceptable, even when a woman has been raped.

Earlier this week, in an interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge, he said that advancing the role of women in the church, while important, is still a "secondary" issue and that he would not go so far as to allow women to become priests.

The Quebec apology

In 2007, Ouellet publicly apologized for errors of the Catholic Church in Quebec prior to the 1960s Quiet Revolution when the church was virtually abandoned

These errors included anti-semitism, racism, sexual assaults, indifference to First Nations people, and discrimination against women and homosexuals.

But the apology was widely dismissed as an opportunistic ploy to reassert church authority.

A few weeks earlier the cardinal had told Quebec's Bouchard-Taylor commission, which was examining the province's treatment of religious minorities, that the reason Quebeckers had difficulties with people of minority faiths is because they had been led astray by "secular fundamentalists."

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As a Canadian Jesuit scholar has suggested, Ouellet is inclined to "put things in a way that should have been put otherwise."

More than 80 per cent of Quebeckers declare themselves Catholics on the census.

But, in recent years, surveys have suggested that as few as six per cent attend mass weekly, the lowest rate of any Western society.

As Montreal's La Presse said in a recent editorial: "Quebec has so categorically rejected the Catholic Church that it is difficult to imagine a new pope, even a native son, reviving the faith."

Maybe others are thinking along similar lines? The Irish bookie Paddy Power gave Ouellet 5-to-2 odds on being elected (40 per cent chance) when Benedict first announced his resignation. It now has him at 8-to-1 (11 per cent).