Quietly but often forcefully, senior churchmen speak of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the archbishop of Quebec City and thus the Primate of Canada, as papabile: a man-with-the-makings-of-a-pope. The thought would doubtless elicit a groan or a laugh — perhaps both — from the 66-year old Canadian theologian: no man with his wits about him wants to shoulder the burdens of the papacy, and Cardinal Ouellet is a man of high intelligence. Still, it should be noted that the Canadian cardinal recently demonstrated one of the qualities required of 21st century popes: a willingness to confront the increasingly aggressive secularism of the North Atlantic world with reason, conviction, and courage.
Several weeks ago, Cardinal Ouellet spoke to a Canadian pro-life rally, praised the present Canadian administration for not including abortion-funding in its G8 global maternal health proposals, deplored the lack of legal restrictions on abortion in Canada, and reaffirmed the Church's ancient conviction, recorded in the earliest sub-apostolic literature, that abortion is a grave injustice whatever the circumstances. Pretty standard stuff, that, although said, I'm sure, with Marc Ouellet's usual passion and elegance. But the commentariat and the politicians went bonkers.
Parti Quebecois leader Pauline Marois declared herself “completely outraged” by Cardinal Ouellet's remarks. The very minister whose federal government department would run the Harper Government's maternal health care initiative in the Third World — which Ouellet explicitly supported — condemned the cardinal's comments as “unacceptable.” Patrick Lagace, columnist for Montreal's La Presse, then vented his secularist spleen at the thought that there might be some role for religiously-informed moral judgment in public life:
“We're all going to die. Cardinal Ouellet will die someday. I hope he dies from a long and painful illness…Yes, [what] I've just written is vicious. But Marc Ouellet is an extremist. And in the debate against religious extremists, every shot is fair game.”
Just to be clear on what's being claimed here: to articulate publicly a biological fact recognized by embryology textbooks — that human life begins at conception — and then to draw two logical moral conclusions from that fact — that the product of conception is an innocent life that deserves the protection of the law, and that abortion is the taking of that innocent life — is to be an “extremist”: or even worse, a “religious extremist” of the sort whose minions throw acid into the faces of little girls wanting to learn how to read.
The Quebec National Assembly quickly got into the act, unanimously affirming the so-called “right to choose.” But again, it was not the thought of back-alley abortions with coat-hangers but another Great Bugaboo that horrified some Quebecois legislators. “What we're seeing here is the rise of the religious right in Canada,” fretted a Parti Quebecois legislator, Carole Poirier. Such are the phantoms that haunt the secularist mind: Marc Cardinal Ouellet, a mild-mannered intellectual and pastor, is really a French-speaking version of Pat Robertson, determined to force women into sexual peonage and likely to claim that volcanic eruptions in Iceland are divine retribution for Nordic unbelief.
Cardinal Ouellet backed down not an inch (or, to be precise in Canadian terms, not a centimeter). Rather, he returned service with brio, suggesting that those determined to foist state-funded abortion on Third World countries were guilty of “neocolonialism” and asking whether the smug secularists of Quebec were not themselves living in an “underdeveloped country,” morally speaking, as they evinced so little regard for the dignity of the human person.
I have no idea what the Holy Spirit has in mind for Cardinal Marc Ouellet's future. But I do know that Quebec — once one of the most vibrantly Catholic parts of North America; now arguably the most religiously arid space between Baffin Island and Tierra del Fuego — is immensely blessed to have as its chief shepherd a man of solid Catholic faith, genuine piety, well-honed intelligence, and deep compassion. Perhaps one day the commentariat and the politicians of La Belle Province will figure that out. That might be one small step toward their reclaiming a lost patrimony that is religious and cultural, not just linguistic.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.