MONTREAL — Quebec’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet, considered a leading contender to become the next pope, has shown a sensitivity and openness to the Jewish community in recent years.
In 2006, while archbishop of Quebec City and primate of Canada, Cardinal Ouellet invited a Jewish delegation to his residence to mark the recent 40th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the historic declaration by the Second Vatican Council modernizing relations between the Roman Catholic Church and non-Christian religions.
The delegation was composed of representatives of Canadian Jewish Congress and the local Jewish community, as well as Rabbi Leigh Lerner of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. Then-Israeli consul general in Montreal, Marc Attali, was also included and spoke at the gathering.
“I personally could not have envisioned such a meeting taking place in my youth,” then-CJC Quebec region chair Jeffrey Boro said at the time. “Cardinal Ouellet is to be commended for having initiated this remarkable encounter.”
The following year, Cardinal Ouellet issued a rare acknowledgement of the church’s past “errors,” including antisemitism, and asked for forgiveness. Besides its spiritual import, the unusual public statement significantly came in the midst of Quebec’s acrimonious debate over the “reasonable accommodation” of religious minorities.
It also came during the year leading up to an important Catholic conclave, the International Eucharistic Congress, that was to be hosted in Quebec City.
In that 2007 open letter published in Quebec newspapers, he apologized for other egregious faults, including the church’s handling of the sexual abuse of children and attitudes to minorities and women.
“I recognize the narrow-minded attitudes of certain Catholics, before 1960, that favoured antisemitism, racism, indifference towards First Nations and discrimination against women and homosexuals,” he wrote. He called on the faithful to publicly repent for these past mistakes during the Christian season of Lent.
“Our Judeo-Christian tradition has made us a people who stand together and are charitable. We know how to help each other and we are capable of forgiveness with the help of God.”
Then-CJC Quebec chair Victor Goldbloom, a pioneer in interfaith dialogue, welcomed Cardinal Ouellet’s forthrightness and said it was in keeping with his past efforts to nurture a relationship with the Jewish community.
“He is a friend of the community, for whom I have a great deal of esteem,” said Goldbloom in 2007. “He is certainly an open-minded and positive person, and I think [the letter] will have an influence on Canadian Catholics.”
Goldbloom, a past president of both the Canadian and international Council of Christians and Jews, said this week that he continues to regard Ouellet, 68, as a beacon for dialogue and reconciliation. He would consider it good news if the Quebec cleric is chosen to succeed to Pope Benedict XVI.
“Cardinal Ouellet has been very positive on Catholic-Jewish relations and my contacts with him over the years have shown he is very supportive of dialogue,” Goldbloom said.
He recalled that Cardinal Ouellet wanted to start formal dialogue with the Quebec City Jewish community, but perhaps because it is so small, that was never realized.
Although Cardinal Ouellet is regarded as a staunch conservative, Goldbloom said, “My intuition tells me that, if he is elected, we will see a continuation of the positive relations that now go back to John XXIII [1958-63].”
The German Pope Benedict, who steps down at the end of the month, is also viewed as conservative, yet has been supportive of Christian-Jewish relations, Goldbloom pointed out.
Pope Benedict did, however, make a couple of decisions that have shaken the Jewish community’s confidence in that commitment, Goldbloom acknowledged. These include his revoking of the excommunication of British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, who has denied aspects of the Holocaust, and the restoring of the Latin Mass with its prayer for the conversion of the Jews.
“This is the kind of paradox we could have with Cardinal Ouellet, but, on balance, I look back at Benedict’s papacy with a positive feeling,” Goldbloom said.
In October, Goldbloom became one of the few non-Christians to be made a papal knight, a rare honour conferred by the pontiff.
Since 2010, Cardinal Ouellet, who is from the Abitibi region, has been the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, residing in Rome. He has been a cardinal since 2003.
Whether a candidate or not, Cardinal Ouellet is among those in the upper echelons who will be voting for the next pope.
In a 2010 interview published in the National Post, he expressed the opinion that the Second Vatican Council has been interpreted too liberally by many Catholics. But he also observed, “After the council, the sense of mission was replaced by the idea of dialogue, that we should dialogue with other faiths and not attempt to bring them to the Gospels, to convert them.”