Cardinal Marc Ouellet throws his hat into the ring

The friendly French-Canadian cardinal who is finishing up more than a decade as head of the Vatican’s office for bishops has just launched his candidacy to become pope.

Apr 24, 2021

By Robert Mickens,
Why would a 76-year-old cardinal whom the Pope will be “retiring” in the coming months  (if not weeks) suddenly announce he’s  organising a big international conference  on vocations that won’t take place until  next year in Rome?

That’s exactly what Cardinal Marc  Ouellet did on April 12 when he launched  plans for a symposium titled Towards a  Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood. The event — at which he is the  host, main speaker and chief organiser —  is scheduled for February 17-19, 2022. 

That’s still 10 months away. And by  then the polyglot French-Canadian cardinal will already be 77 (he was born June  8, 1944) and — without a doubt — no  longer prefect of the Congregation for  Bishops.

But another question arises: why is the  Congregation for Bishops sponsoring an  international theological gathering on vocations? 

Not an adequate or full explanation
At the April 12 press conference announcing the symposium, Ouellet said  the three-day event is meant to be a “vast  theological endeavour which should offer  a renewed vision, a sense of the essential,  and a way of valuing all vocations while  respecting what is specific to each”. 

In other words, it will not be just about  vocations to the ministerial priesthood,  but all “Church vocations”. Such a Vatican-sponsored meeting would normally  be an “inter-dicasterial” undertaking.  That is, it would be jointly sponsored by  offices that deal with the presbyterate,  consecrated life (religious orders) and the  laity.

Why is the Congregation for Bishops  organising this, except, perhaps, because  the bishops (“overseers”) are ultimately  in charge of everything in the Church? 

But even that is not an adequate or  full explanation. “The conference programme is available to journalists and to  the public from April 16” Cardinal Ouellet told reporters at the launch. “A website, opened a few days ago, will provide  further information to interested parties,  facilitating registration for participants as  well as to solicit financial contributions in  support of the organisation of this great  event,” he added.

A way to keep Cardinal Ouellet “in  the game”
The website is that of a vocations research centre, “independent of the Holy  See”, that Cardinal Ouellet founded last  November in Paris. 

“Its purpose is to promote and support  any research action in social sciences  on vocations within society in the broad  sense and all its branches, whether they  are secular or religious institutions,” it  says.

But after navigating the site, it quickly  becomes apparent that its real aim is to  promote Cardinal Ouellet through the vehicle of his “great event” — the February  symposium. 

Now why would the friendly FrenchCanadian need to delve into such an ambitious project that he will, in all likelihood, be overseeing as a  retired Vatican official? 

Perhaps because it  “keeps him in the game”,  as it were. It’s hard to  recall when a cardinal  who was retired or without portfolio was last elected Bishop of  Rome. 

There are those among the cardinalelectors who would be eager to back  Ouellet’s candidacy. However, they  know that once he is no longer head of  the Congregation for Bishops, his chances to become pope greatly diminish. 

Benedict XVI gave Ouellet his influential Vatican job in June 2010 when  he rescued the affable French-Canadian  theologian from a difficult and rather dismal eight-year tenure as Archbishop of  Québec.

And when Benedict shocked the world  and retired from the papacy in 2013,  Ouellet was much discussed as a leading  contender to succeed him.

“I have to be ready, even if I think that  probably others could do it better,” he  said in the run-up to the conclave. 

“But I will cross the river when I get to  the bridge,” he said in English. “My identity is to be a missionary – right from the  beginning,” said the cardinal.

Who is Marc Ouellet?
Cardinal Ouellet (pronounced whe-LET)  is a career theologian and a member of  the Sulpician teaching order. He was appointed Archbishop of Québec – Canada’s primatial see – in 2003 after serving  only eighteen months as bishop-secretary  of the Pontifical Council for Promoting  Christian Unity, an office then headed by  Cardinal Walter Kasper. 
Before that Ouellet had spent most of  his priesthood as a professor and rector in  Sulpician seminaries in Canada and Colombia. 

He also spent more than nine years in  Rome, earning a licentiate in philosophy  at the University of St Thomas (Angelicum) and a doctorate in dogmatic theology from the Gregorian University.

Additionally, he taught dogmatic theology at the John Paul II Institute on Marriage and the Family (1996-2002). Ouellet is considered an expert on the writings  of the late Hans Urs von Balthasar and,  since 1990, he has served on the editorial board of the international theological  journal, Communio.

Balthasar and Joseph Ratzinger were  among those who founded the journal  in 1972. The Canadian cardinal has an  impressive curriculum vitae and speaks  several languages fluently, switching effortlessly (especially) between French,  English, Italian and Spanish.

You may recall that much was made of  Cardinal Ouellet coming to Pope Francis’ defence a couple of years after the  disgruntled former papal nuncio, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, demanded  the Pope resign.

The kinder, gentler face of the  anti-Francis faction
As was noted in this space when that occurred, the cardinal was protecting his  own good name — and keeping alive  his candidacy for the Chair of Peter — as  much as he was defending Francis.

It seemed more than plausible then, as  his latest initiative does now, that these  moves are part of a deliberate strategy by  the cardinal and his supporters to carefully craft his image as a centrist candidate  in the next conclave.

This is not because Ouellet has personal ambitions or a thirst for power. Quite  the contrary.

He and the more traditionalist and doctrinally conservative prelates who back  him are extremely concerned about the  future of the Church. They are worried  about where Francis is taking it.

They know that the Argentine pope has  stacked the College of Cardinals and they  are fearful he has the numbers to ensure  the election of a successor who will continue to push the Church into unpredictable places and unchartered waters.

Ouellet’s backers in the anti-Francis  faction are hoping to promote the FrenchCanadian as someone who could be a  bridge between the different styles and  ideas of the last two pontificates. The “compromise” candidate in the  next conclave? Cardinal Ouellet is a staunch Benedict  XVI loyalist who has managed to survive  as a team player in Francis’ administration. He’s been extremely careful not to  criticise the Jesuit pope, even though he  has a very different vision of the Church,  the nature of ministry and ecclesiology.

What’s interesting about the launch of  the vocations’ symposium is that it uses  all the language of synodality and reform  that Francis is pushing, but the gathering  is being planned by a group of people  who cling to a classic, neo-scholastic theology and model of Church.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that there could be a conclave within  the next two years. And even at 78 years  of age, physically fit and still engaged,  Marc Ouellet would likely be one of the  anti-Francis bloc's ideal “compromise”  candidates.

His supporters would try to present him  as a man loyal to both Benedict and Francis and as someone with the theological  heft and pastoral background to be able to  advance the current Pope’s reforms, but  in a more structured and reassuring institutional framework.

What Ouellet’s backers are really aiming at, however, is having a new pope  who would “domesticate” or emasculate  Francis’ radically evangelical reform  movement.

Put another way, they would try to  market Ouellet as the candidate who will  provide more theological structure to  Francis’ reforms. But, in reality, they’d  be endorsing a man who would actually  bring back to port the ship that the Jesuit  has pushed out into the deep.

And if he were to be elected Bishop of  Rome, he’d probably be tempted to call  himself Benedict XVII or John Paul III.  But that would be too obvious. Beware if  the next pope is a French-Canadian called  Francis II. ––LCI (https://

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