As Cardinals gather for the conclave in Rome to choose the next Pope, there is growing speculation about Marc Ouellet, a potential Canadian candidate from Québec. The former Archbishop of Québec and current papal legate to Latin America is seen as a serious contender to replace Pope Benedict XVI. A conservative intellectual from the Québec village of La Motte, who spent 11 years in Colombia, he is considered a potential compromise choice between the traditional European contingency of front-runners and possible candidates from the Southern Hemisphere.
Cardinal Ouellet, often described as a favorite of Rome and the departing Pope, is known for his outspoken views and has over the years developed a number of detractors in his own home province of Québec. Undoubtedly a brilliant and respected scholar, his outspoken conservative positions on abortion and gay marriage have made him a target of harsh criticism from politicians and media in Québec. Once a bastion of the Catholic hierarchy and influence, Québec has become increasingly secularized and can now be characterized as Canada’s most socially liberal province. When Ouellet condemned abortion even in the case of rape, the negative reaction was swift and virulent.
This being said, it will not be the population of Québec or liberal columnists who will select the next Pope. Ouellet and other conservative Cardinals will be facing a far greater opponent in the days ahead—the thirst and desire for change among Catholics. If the Cardinals gathered in Rome reflect the mood of Catholics around the world, the next Pope will have to be a change agent.
There are over 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and while the growth of the Church may be in decline in the Northern Hemisphere, it is expanding in Africa and Latin America. This trend has led to some speculation this time around that a Pope could come from the Southern Hemisphere. But change is needed and desired there as well. Greater secularism, increasing pluralism and changing social mores are placing the Church on a steady course to less relevance in much of the Western world. The abhorrent sex abuse scandals, which were the object of a massive cover-up over years by higher authorities, have done nothing to enhance the Church’s reputation and influence.
The next Pope must condemn in no uncertain terms the criminal cover-up of the sex abuse scandal. Saying there is zero tolerance or asking forgiveness is not enough. A few days ago, Cardinal Ouellet qualified the sex scandal more as a human problem than a Catholic one. He missed the point. Higher Church authorities hid criminal behavior and showed little remorse until caught. Catholics expect a higher standard of conduct from Church leaders.
Whether it is a North American choice or one from the Southern Hemisphere, the hope is that the next head of the Vatican will be closer to his flock, and not one who prefers to pontificate about dogma, canon law and resist the change that is meaningful to the lives of many Catholics. The next Pope must also come to grips with the realization that churches in the West are becoming less populated, that priests are fewer and aging, and that some teachings of the Church are seen as out of sync with today’s realities. Issues such as gay marriage, celibacy of priests, role of women in the Church, the complexities associated with abortion, birth control, fighting AIDS, and the place of divorced couples in the Church represent some of the challenges facing Pope Benedict XVI’s successor.
The hope is that we can once again find a Pontiff in line with the approach and the inclusiveness of Pope John XXIII. The latter, a conservative Cardinal with an ecumenical vision and historical perspective, made the teachings of Christ a way of life, and encouraged openness to change and dialogue in a modern world. His Papacy was truly progressive. No matter where the next Pope comes from, Catholics need from its principal messenger the message that change, dialogue and modernity will be at the centerpiece of the next Papacy.