Let me tell you a story about  two cardinals -- two Sulpician cardinals to be precise: Paul-Émile Léger and Marc Ouellet.

Both Quebecois prelates -- Léger was Archbishop of Montreal and Ouellet the Archbishop of Quebec City -- and both seminary professors -- Leger in Japan and Ouellet in Colombia. They also had Roman experience -- Léger as the rector of the Pontifical Canadian College and Ouellett in the Curia.

But the differences are as marked as the similarities. 

Like Ouellet with the current conclave, and he remains a serious papabile, Léger was much mooted as a desirable successor to Blessed Pope John XXIII when the pope died in 1963. 

The Second Vatican Council, which Papa Roncalli had convoked and who presided over its first session in the fall of 1962, provided an international platform for Léger, a clearly identified leader among the progressive Council Fathers. Among this group of "liberals" could be numbered Joseph Frings of Cologne whose peritus or theological expert was one Jospeh Ratzinger.

The 1963 conclave elected Giovanni Battista Montini, Archbishop of Milan, theologian, and close ally of Roncalli. A non-Italian was not really in the cards. This time.

In 1967, following a serious effort to implement the insights and spirit of renewal characteristic of the Council, Leger surprised his province with the announcement of his resignation in what was Canada's Centennial Year.  He then spent several years -- sporadic to some degree -- working among lepers and handicapped children in Cameroon. 

Léger was a complex, mercurial, quixotic and charismatic leader. Inclined by temperament to the flamboyant gesture and not insensitive to the power and prerogatives that attended upon his office, he was also a man of uncommon generosity, exacting spiritual self-scrutiny, and intellectual openness.  He welcomed, and in part prepared for, the Quiet Revolution that would change the face of Quebec forever.

Unlike Léger, however, Ouellet judges the Quiet Revolution as a toxi development in the history of the Quebec Church: church attendance spiralling downward; a comprehensive disregard for Catholic teaching on sexuality; the evisceration of Catholic institutional life when it comes to health care, education and social services; the marginalizing of the clergy as serious players in civic society; the rise of religious pluralism and the shattering of Catholic hegemony.

Although Ouellet is right when you look at the radical re-shaping of the ecclesiastical landscape in the province of his birth, he leaves out of his analysis of a Quebec society that has fallen prey to the evils of secularism and moral relativism, the role the church played in creating and controlling such a feudal world of clerical domination and dangerously insular thinking. 

What he fails to note is that the very church that was master of the house had among its servants not a few intellectuals, lay and clerical, administrators, dreamers and visionaries who saw the need for structural and societal change and became agents of reform: Msgr. Alphonse Parent, Fr. Georges-Henri Lévesque, OP, Claude  Ryan, Gérard Pelletier, Pierre Trudeau, Larkin Kerwin, and numerous others.

Where Léger saw a new opening -- fraught with risk for sure, and necessitating disruptive change -- Ouellet sees only devastation, a once great presence reduced to shards and snippets of influence.


Dr. Michael W. Higgins is CTV's Papal commentator. He is also:

  • Vice President for Mission & Catholic Identity, Sacred Heart University
  • Chief Consultant, for “Sir Peter Ustinov’s Inside the Vatican” 6-part series
  • Author of Bestsellers: Power and Peril: the Catholic Church at the Crossroads , (HarperCollins, 2002) and Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making (Anansi, 2006)
  • Author of Award-winners: Heretic Blood: the Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton (Stoddart, 1998) and Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical sex Abuse Scandal (Novalis, 2010)
  • Past President of St. Jerome’s in Waterloo & St. Thomas In Fredericton NB