Ottawa — Cardinal Marc Ouellet‘s apology to Quebeckers for the past sins of some Catholics in that province has provoked an unprecedented response — both positive and negative — across the country.
Some have described it as risky but prophetic act of leadership. Others have called it a calculating political move in his battle against the mandatory ethics and religious culture course Quebec plans to impose on public and private schools next fall. Others say the apology did not go far enough. Some reports have painted him as isolated — a lone voice not supported by his brother bishops inside Quebec or the rest of Canada.
On November 21, Ouellet, writing as Archbishop of Quebec and Primate of Canada, issued an open letter to Quebec papers inviting Catholics “to perform an act of repentance and reconciliation” that he promised would continue during Lent as a lead-up to the 2008 Eucharistic Congress in Quebec.
“I recognize that the narrow attitudes of certain Catholics, prior to 1960, favoured anti-Semitism, racism, indifference towards First Nations and discrimination against women and homosexuals,” Ouellet wrote. “The behavior of Catholics and certain Episcopal authorities with regards to the right to vote, access to work and promotion of women, hasn’t always been up to par with society’s needs or conformed to the social doctrine of the church.”
“I also recognize that abuses of power and cover-ups have, for many tarnished the image of the clergy and its moral authority: mothers have been rebuffed by priests without concern for their family obligations; youngsters were subject to sexual aggression by priests and religious figures, causing great injury and traumatism which have broken their lives!” he wrote. He then apologized.
The apology letter came three weeks after his October 30 brief to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission studying reasonable accommodation of religious minorities. Ouellet told the commission Quebec’s uneasiness with newcomers, its miniscule birth rate, high suicide rate and other social ills stemmed from a spiritual void created by the collapse of Catholicism. Ouellet said the response to this brief prompted him to write the apology letter. In it, he asked whether Quebec’s search for spirituality was impeded by “the excessive authority of the church.”
Reaction to the letter dominated news coverage in Quebec and quickly spread to the rest of Canada. It led the CBC’s flagship news program The National that night, and made the front page of both of Canada’s national newspapers the next day. Ouellet, who had flown to Rome after delivering the letter, told CBC News the next day he was stunned by the reaction.
“I am aware that some people are not satisfied with what I did, or maybe they criticize what I did,” he told CBC News from Rome. “But it is a first step in a journey of dialogue in order to understand each other better.”
Many news stories featured negative reactions from representatives of women’s groups and gay rights organizations who, while grudgingly accepting the cardinal’s apology, criticized it for not going far enough. They criticized the Church’s stand on women’s ordination, contraception and same-sex marriage.
McGill University professor of religion and public policy Dan Cere described some of these reaction as “bizarre.”
“If they are expecting the Catholic Church to transform itself into the United Church of Canada that’s not going to happen,” he said. “The Church would end up metamorphosing into another church. But I think that’s what some folks are hoping for.”
Cere also defended Ouellet’s choosing to apologize for the acts of the church before 1960, because after the Quiet Revolution the Church has been so marginalized in Quebec it has had little impact.
Saint Paul University theology professor Catherine Clifford described the media response in Quebec as “a hermeneutic of suspicion.
“I think he’s sincere in trying to take ownership of unfortunate chapters of history in Quebec society,” she said.
She challenged the widespread perception that Ouellet’s apology was unusual, pointing to numerous other public apologies in Canada by bishops and bishops’ conferences for residential schools abuses and the sexual abuse of children. Ouellet acknowledged being inspired by the example of John Paul II, who in March 2000 asked for forgiveness for past sins of Church members.
Some called the apology tainted or calculating because Ouellet reiterated his support for parents to have a say over the kind of religious education their children receive in the schools. Quebec plans to impose an ‘Ethics and Religious Culture’ course next fall on all schools public and private. Ouellet has waged a public campaign against this course.
Luc Gagnon, president of Quebec Campagne-Vie, a pro-life organization, and editor of Egards, a socially conservative journal, described Ouellet as “a prophetic voice in our time” and a “religious leader who defends the interests of the faithful against the aggression of the state.”
Gagnon said Ouellet’s “mea culpa” was an invitation for Quebeckers to get past the resentment they have towards their Catholic heritage: “Don’t be angry any more about your own religious tradition, but act as an adult, be mature,” Gagnon said.
While many news outlets treated Cardinal Ouellet’s title as primate as if he were the official leader of the Catholic Church in Canada; others played up his isolation from the other bishops in Canada. The Ottawa Citizen said church officials “sought to distance themselves” from Ouellet, noting the silence of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).
The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec (AECQ) president Trois-Rivieres Bishop Martin Veillette described Ouellet’s letter as a “personal initiative.”
“Cardinal Ouellet has not written his letter with the other bishops of Quebec,” he said, noting that each bishop “can decide to make an intervention if he wants.”
In recent years, the AECQ has preferred to “try to speak together,” Veillette said, noting that Quebeckers are not used to individual interventions from a bishop. However, he pointed out that Ouellet did not set a precedent with his personal brief to the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. Both Rimouski Bishop Bertrand Blanchet and Veillette presented personal briefs.
“I hope this second intervention of Cardinal Ouellet will somewhere have some good effects,” he said, noting that the mixed reaction is not surprising.
CCCB president Archbishop James Weisgerber was traveling and unavailable to comment, but CCCB communications director Sylvain Salvas explained the CCCB never comments on statements by bishops or regional conferences, because each bishop is independent in his diocese. There is no head of the Catholic Church in Canada as there are heads of other churches.
Canon law expert Father Frank Morrisey of Saint Paul University explained the role of primate as a “primacy of liturgical function.” Because Ouellet heads the oldest diocese in Canada he gets first place in processions, but in terms of leading the church it “means absolutely nothing,” and has “no jurisdiction attached to it at all.”
He noted Ouellet does not speak on behalf of the Quebec bishops either. “Obviously the fact that he’s a cardinal carries more weight.” However he described the attention given to his statement as “quite significant.”
Whatever the title of primate means, Ouellet exercising leadership. Cere described him as willing to “step out and stir the pot,” and to take a risk in doing it.
He said he sees Ouellet echoing in a Canadian context what Pope Benedict XVI is doing on an international and European context when the pope talks about the malaise of European culture and the need for a revival of its Christian roots.
Ouellet sees the Quebec church as “a cradle for evangelism in the new world,” Cere said. Because of its unique role historically, “the future of the Quebec church has a bearing on the future of Catholicism in Canada.”
Far from politically calculating, Cere described Ouellet as a “deeply reflecting individual” with a background in theology. “I don’t know if he really wanted this job.”
Former gay rights activist Alan Yoshioka appreciated Ouellet’s apology. Church members have been guilty of “failures of sensitivity, respect and compassion towards people with homosexual attraction” that have caused “confusion and pain,” said the Toronto-based writer and editor, who was received into the Catholic Church two years ago.
Yoshioka said he now sees the Church’s hard teachings on homosexual behavior as “truly motivated by love” but he credits supernatural help in coming to that understanding.
“What Ouellet is doing is calling the Church to be true to itself, from the basis of a deep knowledge of what the Church truly is,” he said.
“This statement is a preparation for the Eucharistic Congress,” Yoshioka said. “How can the Church in Quebec go forward to this wonderful celebration of the Eucharist without having made peace or an attempt to make peace with the people of Quebec whom it has injured.”
— Courtesy of Canadian Catholic News. Please do not reprint without permission.
The archbishop of Quebec City has issued a wide-ranging mea culpa that seeks forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s handling of sex scandals and its treatment of minorities. In an open letter published in Quebec newspapers Wednesday, Marc Cardinal Ouellet says “errors were committed” in the past by certain Catholics and other church officials.
Canadian Press, November 20
An apology from Canada’s top Roman Catholic official for the failings of the church means little to some of those he admitted have been hurt by the church’s abuse of power. Marc Cardinal Ouellet admitted in an open letter published in Quebec newspapers Wednesday that scandals have tarnished the image of the church in Quebec and that “we must humbly ask forgiveness.”
Canadian Press, November 21
Catholic Church officials yesterday sought to distance themselves from Quebec Marc Cardinal Ouellet, who in an unexpected mea culpa published in Quebec newspapers, asked forgiveness for past sexual abuse and discrimination committed by Catholics.
Ottawa Citizen, November 22
Open letter to Quebec newspapers refers to discrimination, sex scandals.
CanWest News Service, November 22
Canada’s top Roman Catholic official says he’s a bit surprised by the negative reaction to his open letter in which he asked Quebecers to forgive errors committed by the church before 1960. Marc Cardinal Ouellet admitted in a letter published in Quebec newspapers Wednesday that scandals have tarnished the image of the church in Quebec and that “we must humbly ask forgiveness.”
Canadian Press, November 22
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the association of Quebec bishops refused yesterday to stand behind Quebec Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who apologized Tuesday for the past sins of the Catholic church. The bishops stressed he “spoke only on his behalf.”
CanWest News Service, November 22
Catholic bishop issues unsolicited apology for ‘harm’.
National Post, November 23
I certainly don’t expect the Primate of Canada to consult me about his correspondence. But had he asked me, I would have advised him against apologizing for anything he didn’t do. Not now, not ever. It’s not a good idea. The letter set off what the CBC described as “a storm of criticism from gay groups to women’s organizations.” They considered the apology either inadequate or insincere or both. Quebec Finance Minister Monique Jerome-Forget actually saw fit to remind the Cardinal that sorry doesn’t change the past. It sure doesn’t. Often all it does is extend the past into the future.
George Jonas, National Post, November 28