Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who as primate of Canada is the senior Roman Catholic churchman in the country, struck a nerve this week in his home province and across Canada by issuing an apology for a wide range of abuses committed in the Roman Catholic Church before 1960.
In a letter published Wednesday in the French-language press, Ouellet said he recognized that the "narrow attitudes of certain Catholics," before 1960, "fostered anti-Semitism, indifference toward First Nations people, (and) discrimination toward women and homosexuals." He also acknowledged "abuses of power and cover-ups."
A statement of regret for actions that undeniably harmed a large number of people is always welcome. Sorry is one of the hardest words for most people to pronounce. It is unlikely to be any easier to say for an archbishop or for the institution he represents.
Yet if the highest-ranking Catholic bishop in Canada thought his words of regret would bring a measure of solace to anyone, he seems to have miscalculated. If public commentary to date reflects the thinking and feelings of ordinary Quebecers, there is little willingness to let bygones be bygones about what many see as the church's iron-fisted and unwarranted control of many aspects of daily life. This power was wielded largely through intimate co-operation with the Quebec government in the days of the "grand noirceur" before the Quiet Revolution.
Ouellet also gently reminded Quebecers of the good the church has done in this society. But most public attention focused on his words of contrition, which were carefully parsed and weighed throughout the province. Jean-Jacques Samson in the Journal de Québec noted that the prelate notified French-language newspapers he would have something to say several days before leaving for Spain and then Rome for a meeting of cardinals. Samson said Ouellet's act was like throwing "a big rock in the water" and then running away before he had to say any more. (No explanation has been forthcoming of why Ouellet did not address English-language Quebecers. )
Ouellet's expression of regret is plainly intended to start a dialogue with current and former parishioners. It is noteworthy here that when he appeared before the Bouchard-Taylor commission last month, he said Quebecers' anxiety over reasonable accommodation of other religions begins with "the malaise of the Catholic majority, which needs to find a religious reference point, which needs to renew with its spiritual values." Then this week he mentioned what he sees as a need for Catholic education of nominally Catholic school children.
Taken together, that statement and this week's open letter suggest an attempt at a popular revival for a church which has never regained the francophone congregation it lost at the time of the Quiet Revolution.
Talking is almost always salutary. That Quebecers have seized this opportunity to unburden themselves reveals a need for a real discussion of the role of the Catholic church here, in the context of the wider debate about church and state. However that goes, trying to launch a dialogue, where there was only angry silence, is already a step forward.