MONTREAL - Word that a Canadian cardinal is a presumed contender to succeed Pope Benedict XVI has been met with a mixed response in his own Quebec backyard.
Advocates for victims of sexual abuse by priests and even some members of the clergy aren't quite in Marc Cardinal Ouellet's cheering section.
While the idea of a global icon emerging from here has stirred the local imagination, that excitement is tempered by the fact that Ouellet's once-religious home province has become intensely secular and even anti-clerical.
Rev. Raymond Gravel suggested Tuesday that for the Roman Catholic church to stem its decline in Quebec, and elsewhere in the world, it should avoid making another theologian or university professor its next pontiff. Ouellet is both — a theologian and a longtime professor.
Gravel believes the College of Cardinals should choose someone who has been "close to the misery of people, to poverty," perhaps someone from Latin America or Africa.
"Now, is Cardinal Ouellet the answer to this? I can't answer that," said Gravel, a former Bloc Quebecois MP.
"He can answer that himself. Does he have the capacities, does he have the openness, does he have the charisma?"
Ouellet is being touted as one of the likeliest successors — perhaps even the front-runner — to succeed Pope Benedict, who announced his resignation Monday. Benedict, 85, declared he would step down at the end of February, citing a lack of strength to do the job.
Ouellet, the 68-year-old native of La Motte, Que., has advanced degrees in theology and philosophy from two universities in Rome, where he was chairman of dogmatic theology at a branch of the Pontifical Lateran University.
He was named a cardinal in 2003, and in 2010 was made head of the powerful Congregation for Bishops, which vets bishops nominations worldwide. Ouellet also speaks five languages and has worked in Latin America.
But Gravel said the cardinals who take part in the upcoming conclave to select the next pope should perhaps consider naming a bishop, a priest or a missionary, instead of one of their own.
"The population demands change, so I think they need to be attentive to that," he said of the cardinals eligible to vote. "If they are conscious about the future of the church, and they're not simply thinking about their careers and about their ideology, then I think they should be open to this reality."
Fewer and fewer parishioners have sat in Quebec pews since the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, a time when the church lost its once-powerful grip on education and political sway in the province.
Quebec's Catholic church attendance stood at 90 per cent before 1960 and had plummeted to just six per cent by 2008, according to a poll cited in a Globe and Mail report.
The province has even spawned a more militant form of secularism.
The recently elected Parti Quebecois government has announced plans for a so-called "Charter of Secularism," which would ban overt religious symbols from the public service. The measures are expected to have a greater impact on non-Christian symbols like the hijab, however, than Christian ones.
The proposal was first hatched when the PQ was in opposition, and it had an official shadow cabinet position reserved for a secularism spokesperson.
As for Ouellet, he has struggled to win widespread admiration in Quebec.
Benoit Lacroix, a Quebec church historian and priest, described him as someone who represents a "very, very conservative current."
"This is a very educated man, who lives in his own world," Lacroix said of Ouellet.
"I don't see why it would be Cardinal Ouellet. I have my doubts."
The former Archbishop of Quebec City created controversy when he ignored the wishes of many of his priests and banned the practice of general absolution — a type of mass-forgiveness ceremony that allowed Catholics to avoid the discomfort of the confessional.
The practice, dismissed by purists as a shortcut, was favoured by many priests because it often boosted attendance.
Ouellet is also remembered in Quebec for anti-abortion remarks he made in 2010, which provoked angry reactions from women's rights activists and a number of politicians — including Premier Pauline Marois, who was opposition leader at the time.
The cardinal had told media that abortion was unjustifiable, even in cases of rape.
Ouellet has also spoken out against gay marriage, calling it "a big crisis, not only a moral crisis, but an anthropological one. We don't know what it means to be a human being anymore."
The cardinal has come under fire for remaining silent on the issue of sexual abuse by priests in the province.
France Bedard, president of l'Association des victimes de prêtres, said Ouellet never responded to her letters requesting a meeting to discuss the plight of victims of these crimes.
"Cardinal Ouellet is responsible for the silence, the indifference, the inaction of the Catholic church in Quebec when it comes to sexual-abuse victims," said Bedard, who launched a lawsuit against Archdiocese of Quebec City on allegations she was raped by a priest 45 years ago.
"His primary goal is to protect the image of the Catholic church."
Gravel believes it would take more than a Quebec-born pope to reverse the church's ebb in the province.
"It will feed our egos a little bit for a couple of days... It takes more than that," he said, adding that there's a need for the church to show more openness on issues like women's equality, contraception and allowing priests to marry.
"It depends who (that Quebecer is) and right now the only candidate on the list is Cardinal Ouellet. I'm going to ask the question: Is he really the one we need to bring people together, to stimulate the church, to make the church shift?
"I don't know, but it scares me a little bit. I am afraid of this. I don't think that this is what we need right now."
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