‘The High Ground’: Can the faith of a Cardinal restore the Catholic Church to innocence?
LOUISE BRISSETTE’S sprawling one-storey farmhouse sits nestled on a wooded hill off the road near Saint-Anselme, Quebec, less than an hour from Quebec City. It is the day after Christmas, a Sunday afternoon, and despite the bracing sub-zero cold, inside it is warm, cozy, and utterly chaotic. A short, sturdy woman in her early sixties with cropped silver hair and bright blue eyes, Madame Brissette waves me in through the back door to a foyer piled with dozens of boots, coats, and scarves, and then to a long wooden table in the kitchen. There is a paraplegic boy strapped into his wheelchair and wriggling in the corner. A little girl with giant, wandering eyes shyly approaches me and attempts to introduce herself, with great difficulty. In the first room along the hallway, past the kitchen, toddlers stumble and crawl among plastic trucks and airplanes and blocks; in the next, slightly older kids gleefully scream as they play Wii Sports. At any given time, Brissette’s family includes two dozen or more children, ranging in age from infants to teenagers, with cognitive and physical disorders from barely recognizable to severe.
Brissette has devoted her life to helping the most vulnerable, in an expression of her deep Catholic piety. After a tour of the main house, we take a walk along a path through the snowbound woods, past simple crosses marking the graves of children under her care who have died, to a bungalow that houses a chapel. Set in the main room, with folding chairs arranged in front of it, the altar is a slab of local granite topped with a cross of lashed together birch branches. It is the kind of makeshift altar one imagines early Quebec missionaries praying in front of. It is also where Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the former archbishop of Quebec and primate of Canada, often sought refuge from the clamour of public life.
“I felt connected to him from the first time I asked him to come baptize one of the infants,” Brissette tells me. “He was very close to the children. He is a man of emotion as well as wisdom, and he loved their simplicity and transparency.” Indeed, children are central to the vision of the Catholic Church: they not only represent future generations of the faithful, but they also provide an example of the love and trust human beings are capable of before being warped by the demands, and temptations, of adulthood.
Children are also central to perhaps the worst crisis the Church has faced since the Reformation, one that makes the more recent secularization of Western societies seem pale by comparison. Over the past decade, as many of the literally tens of thousands of victims assaulted by priests in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s go public, sexual abuse scandals have infected dioceses across Europe and both North and South America, and the most recent incidents, stemming from the systemic molestation of children in Ireland’s ubiquitous Catholic schools, are by far the worst. Contrary to the impression propagated by the media, however, it is no more likely that your local parish priest is a predatory serial pedophile than, say, the principal at your children’s elementary school may be. The problem is that priests are meant to be held to higher moral and spiritual standards than other people are; they are supposed to have been called to their vocations by God. The scandals have gravely damaged the credibility of the entire priesthood, as well as that of Church leaders, who protected abusers by either ignoring complaints against priests altogether, or by transferring them to new dioceses with minimal counselling, without so much as alerting the secular authorities.
When Pope Benedict XVI called Cardinal Ouellet to Rome last June to serve as prefect of the Congregation of Bishops, one of the most powerful positions in the Vatican (as well as appointing him president of the Pontifical Commission on Latin America), he put him in a position that will be critical to any enduring solution to sexual abuse within the Church. The prefect oversees the final vetting of candidates for bishoprics around the world before the pope makes the final choice; those bishops, in turn, are ultimately responsible for the priests in their dioceses. Ouellet was most likely placed in such an important and sensitive position because he is a respected and worldly North American leader who has not been tainted by scandal, and because he has been a trusted intellectual ally of the conservative elite that has dominated the Church since the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978. In fact, Vatican insiders agree that Ouellet is on the short list to become the next pope, should the eighty-four-year-old Benedict XVI die anytime soon. The open question is whether the Church’s current uncompromising approach will eventually serve to rebuild the trust and respect of an increasingly disillusioned laity.