|Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet. Photo courtesy of http://www.diocesequebec.qc.ca
OTTAWA - Canada's Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a mainstream conservative churchman who once said becoming pope "would be a nightmare", is now widely seen as the North American candidate for the job.
Ouellet, 68, an insider with strong connections to the church administrative apparatus, the Curia, is a frontrunner to succeed Pope Benedict XVI, who has announced his resignation and triggered the hunt for a replacement.
British and Irish online bookmakers place his chances just behind those of Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana and the archbishop of Manila, Luis Antonio Tagle, who was made a cardinal last year at age 54 at Ouellet's urging.
He has faced strong criticism in his native Quebec for promoting the Roman Catholic Church's traditional positions on gay marriage, abortion and other hot-button issues, but few think this will hurt him with his peers in Rome.
And if any of the cardinals who will meet in conclave to elect a new pontiff are seeking continuity, Ouellet was a trusted and orthodox advisor to outgoing the Benedict XVI candidate with a very similar vision.
Branded the "Iron Cardinal" by Canadian media for his buttoned-down views, Ouellet could widen a rift between conservatives and reformists, according to Gilles Routhier, head of Laval University's theology faculty in Quebec City.
Born one of eight children to a school headmaster and his wife on June 8, 1944, in La Motte, Quebec, Ouellet studied philosophy and theology before being ordained a priest in May 1968 in his home parish.
He quickly rose within the church's ranks, being consecrated a bishop in 2001, and was personally named archbishop by Pope John Paul II the same year, along with being tasked with overseeing the Canadian church.
Two years later he was elevated to cardinal.
Many thought he could have succeeded Pope John Paul II in 2005 but, as a cardinal elector at the papal conclave, he reportedly threw his support behind Germany's Cardinal Ratzinger, who duly became Benedict XVI.
Ouellet is currently the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
Formerly, as archbishop of Quebec and primate of the Canadian Catholic Church, he urged Canadian lawmakers against legalizing gay marriage in 2005.
He also provoked a firestorm of criticism from politicians and feminists for strongly condemning abortion, even when pregnancy is the result of rape.
"A woman who has been raped has lived through a trauma and she needs to be helped," he said then. "But she must do that with respect for the being that is inside her... There is already one victim. Must we have another one?"
Ouellet also fiercely defended priests against the charge that anyone who opposes same-sex marriages is "a bigot, anti-gay and homophobic."
"There's a climate taking shape where we don't dare say what we think any more or we don't dare teach," he told a Canadian Senate committee. "Even in the pulpit we feel threatened in teaching the church's sexual morality."
In 2007, in an unexpected concession, Ouellet asked forgiveness for past sexual abuse and discrimination committed by Catholics.
Two years later, his older brother Paul, an artist, was convicted of sexually assaulting two teenage girls in the 1980s.
Ouellet has also faced a backlash for denouncing what he claimed was a "secular fundamentalism" or "anti-religious bias" in Quebec society, and for defending religious instruction in public schools.
Quebec, a once orthodox Catholic province, is now arguably the most secular in Canada.
Even though 80 percent of Quebecers refer to themselves as Catholic, hundreds of churches sit mostly empty for Sunday masses and Quebecers are now more likely to enter into a common-law marriage than head to a church.
Marc Ouellet may be a Vatican and bookmakers' darling.
But according to an editorial in the Montreal daily La Presse: "Quebec has so categorically rejected the Catholic Church that it is difficult to imagine a new pope, even a native son, reviving the faith."
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