I'm trying to imagine the sort of headlines that must have appeared in Canadian newspapers following Neil Armstrong's 1969 spacewalk. "Man sets foot on thing that controls Canada's tides," perhaps. Or maybe, "Green cheese: possible new poutine topping?"
It's a testament to the massive ego of this modest nation that our media's efforts to provide a "Canadian angle" on international news -- once little more than a dash of local context at the end -- now routinely overshadows the core story itself. We're debating changes to our citizenship laws at the moment because the Canadian press made such a fuss over the allegation that one of the terrorists involved in last month's Algerian hostage standoff might have held a Canadian passport. On Tuesday, the Globe and Mail provided a Canadian's guide to watching President Obama's state of the Union, lest anyone accidentally follow American politics for its own sake. And Monday's shockingly unprecedented, six-centuries-of-tradition-breaking resignation from the spiritual ruler of the world's one billion Catholics has largely been spun as "Canadian to get promotion."
Ever since the Holy Father announced that he has to go away, the Canadian press has been endlessly fascinated with the possibility that a Canuck archbishop named Marc Cardinal Ouellet might be the next to occupy the throne of St. Pete. Normally it takes a "Best Foreign Film" Oscar nod to generate this kind of buzz about a French-Canadian you've never heard of.
"Will a former small-town boy from Quebec become the next pope?" asked the front page of Tuesday's Globe and Mail. "Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet among frontrunners to replace Pope Benedict XVI," echoed the National Post. He's the "most likely successor" declares columnist Raymond de Souza. The "outright favourite" cheers Simon Kent at the Sun.
And the corroborating evidence for Ouellet's shoe-in status? Well, the Post notes that Irish bookies seem to be fond of him (current odds: 4-1), while other reporters draw their fawning conclusions after interviewing the local boy's conveniently proximate social circle (which might be a somewhat biased sample. I mean, wouldn't your pals describe you as "pope-worthy?").
But there's some heartier hosannas in here, too. Ouellet has a geographic advantage that's said to make him attractive to the Vatican set; the Church is interested in cultivating leadership beyond the decadent, lapsed-Catholic west, which could make a pope from Quebec very attractive to cardinals who know absolutely nothing about the place. It's also been observed that Father Marc is considered a compelling "traditionalist" on key theological and social issues, has strong ties to important Catholic communities in Latin America, and, as Stephen Colbert noted, is super polite.
There's an old Vatican saying, however, that when it comes to papal elections, the man who "walks in a pope walks out a cardinal." When Pope Paul VI died in 1978, there was a general media consensus that the conclave would seek a non-Italian replacement. Rome's getting way more cosmopolitan, they insisted confidently. And Catholics got a guy named Albino Luciani. When he died a few days later, the press mea culpa'd hard. Fine, they conceded, I guess it's Italians forever. The Church then promptly elected its first Polish leader.
Press predictions that Cardinal Ratzinger would replace John Paul II in 2005 proved more on the money, but then again, JP2 hung around for so long, and left town so often, grooming a clear papal understudy was pretty much mandatory. As head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for more than two decades, Ratzinger was essentially Rome's VP-internal for much of his predecessor's administration, and an heir that could have hardly been more apparent.
Cardinal Ouellet, in contrast, though often described as "close" to the outgoing pope, doesn't seem to have quite the same slam-dunk resume. He's only been part of the Vatican in-crowd since 2010, when he was appointed boss of something called the "Congregation of Bishops," which, according to the CBC is basically the Holy See's HR department, and the Canadian Press (despite a cocksure caveat that Marc's "perhaps even the front-runner") notes that in the wake of the overly-cerebral Benedict, the Church might not be too keen to install another cloistered "theologian and professor" to its top job. Plus he's got a bit of pedophilia scandal dirt on him -- though that's hardly been a deal-breaker in the past.
Of course, all this analysis could prove to be just so much useless backseat Pope-mobiling.
In these secular times of ours, it's difficult for journalists -- especially those making a living covering the Machiavellian world of partisan politics, to fathom an election with voters motivated by purposes larger than optics and opportunism.
Most of the cardinals cooped in next month's conclave will genuinely view their duty as a divine one, and godly logic tends to work in mysterious ways. The two John Pauls were not particularly famous or accomplished prior to their elevation, and it's equally possible that Christ's next vicar will follow in their humble footsteps, and leapfrog the entire bigwig brigade currently starring in all those cute little "possible pope" slide shows.
Likewise, if Cardinal Ouellet does win, it won't necessarily because his electors felt the need to pick a pope using the same petty calculations of regionalism, charisma, and ideology voters in this country use to choose prime ministers.
Not everything in life is as Canadian as we might like.