ROME – Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, who is presiding over a high-profile Vatican symposium on the theology of the priesthood, has spoken out on a range of hot-button issues, including clericalism, the abuse crisis, and the call for women’s ordination.

As head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet has one of the most significant roles in the Catholic Church’s governing bureaucracy, as his office is charged with vetting candidates to lead dioceses across the globe.

Ouellet, 77, was first appointed to the congregation by Benedict XVI in 2010 and has stayed in his post far beyond the usual 5-year term for heads of Vatican departments.

Much of his tenure in the department has been marked by the clerical abuse scandals – including those involving bishops and even fellow cardinals, such as ex-priest and ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick – making his job of finding the right shepherds for the Church even more crucial at a time when clergy and the Catholic hierarchy generally are under increased scrutiny.

Speaking to Crux, Ouellet said the main reason for organizing the Feb. 17-19 symposium on “Toward a Fundamental Theology of the Priesthood” is to remind all baptized Catholics, not just priests, of the important role they play in the Church amid the challenges it faces.

“We are in a crisis of vocations, because there is a crisis of the awareness of who we are as sons and daughters of God through baptism,” Ouellet said.

He voiced hope that the symposium would reignite enthusiasm for all vocations in the Church, but especially for the ordained priesthood at a time when it has been marred by abuse scandals and the “clericalism” that Pope Francis so often condemns.

Abuse crisis and clericalism

In his interview with Crux, Ouellet said he believes the Church has made “lots of progress” in the fight against clerical sexual abuse in recent years, and that the “process of purification” the Church is undergoing as a result of the scandals will ultimately make it better.

“We have learned to take into account the victims, and to pay attention to them, to listen to them, to reorganize [priestly] formation, to pay compensations, to do all kinds of things, and to admit that we’ve done badly in the past,” he said.

Ouellet apologized to victims on the first day of the symposium, saying they “remained hidden for too long and were treated lightly, out of a desire to protect the institution and the guilty.”

“We will continue for years to ask for forgiveness, and the bishops are aware of that too,” he told Crux.

He pointed to the temptation of some bishops and Church leaders, as scandals continue to come out, to say, “let’s turn the page” and move on.

“People are suffering today, and if we turn the page, they continue to suffer. So, we do not turn the page,” he said, and pointed to Pope Francis’s frequent condemnation of “rigidity” and his assertion that “where there is rigidity, there is something behind it.”

“Sometimes that’s abuse,” Ouellet said, adding, “With rigidity, it seems that everything is very uptight, very controlled, but look behind, and sometimes, in those mentalities, you have cases of abuse. So, rigidity is not a guarantee that you have perfect morals.”

Ouellet also spoke of the problems of clericalism, meaning the perception that priests and members of the Church hierarchy enjoy an exalted status and laity are expected to show deference and obedience to their orders.

This perception of “the sacredness of priests” was a factor in many abuse cases, not only of sexual abuse, but also abuses of power and conscience, Ouellet said, calling it a “deviation” of the priestly vocation which the Church still has not grasped.

“The spirituality of the priest is grounded in the incarnation, Christ’s incarnation, the washing of the feet, that’s the basis of our spirituality: humility, humility, not to be grown out of our ego,” he said. “Our ego must disappear and serve the ego of Christ, that’s the key of the priesthood.”

Ouellet voiced his belief that the Church is just beginning to understand the problem of clericalism, which he said is multifaceted and contains layers the Church has not yet uncovered.

“If the priest says, ‘I am ordained, so I am the one that is commanding here, and women are second rank,’ then I am falling into clericalism,” he said, but noted that there can also be a streak of clericalism amongst the laity.

“Sometimes we can give to laypeople roles, pastoral functions, and they become clerical! Clerical in the sense that they impose themselves, they enter into battle with others, because that’s ‘their responsibility.’ This is clericalism! This is lay clericalism, and it’s no better than priestly clericalism,” he said.

For the Church to fully grasp the problem and deal with it, Ouellet said, “we need a huge study, and we are not ready for that.”

While the link between clericalism and abuse has been studied as part of reports into the handling of abuse cases in countries such as Germany, France, and the United States, a more “in-depth” study is needed exploring the historical, canonical, theological, and philosophical aspects of the problem, Ouellet said.

Within this, the role of bishops must also be better defined, Ouellet said.

He said there was no clear development of the “sacramentality” of the episcopacy or the concept of collegiality prior to the Second Vatican Council. “That’s not long for Church history,” he said, and because of this, the Church still needs to develop these areas.

“I am in charge of the bishops,” he said, noting that it has been nearly three years since Pope Francis passed the legislation, Vos estis lux mundi in May 2019, which enforced mandatory reporting for bishops, and which allowed for punitive measures to be taken if they fail to follow proper protocol in abuse cases.

“Now, we are under scrutiny, and we agree with that,” he said, but admitted that it has been “a difficult time.”

“We have to do many investigations, and people go into pension at 75 thinking, now I’m okay, but I’m not okay, because sometimes the accusations come precisely (then),” he said, adding, “It’s a difficult time, but it is a good time. We are growing, we are going through a process of purification, and our service will improve.”


Ouellet also touched on the topic of priestly celibacy, which is a requirement unique to the Latin rite Catholic Church and which has been a source of renewed interest and commentary in recent years.

During the 2019 Synod of Bishop on the Amazon, allowing the ordination of so-called viri probati, or tested married men, was pitched as a possible solution to a priest shortage in the region, but Pope Francis side-stepped the issue in his exhortation on the synod’s conclusions, encouraging Church officials in the area to step up seminary formation and encourage more local vocations instead.

During this week’s symposium, Ouellet said the topic of priestly celibacy will be addressed, but there will only be one talk about it on the last day, and it will be “a very thorough analysis” of the history and doctrinal aspects of the vow.

Referring to the debate around whether to the Latin rite should open the door to the married priesthood, Ouellet said “We will not ignore this…We cannot stop the discussion about that, and it will certainly be part of the discussion, but it will not be the main focus of the symposium,” he said.

Ouellet noted that there are already married priests in the Catholic Church’s 23 eastern rites, “so it is not a novelty, but the Latin Church has chosen to maintain the requirement of celibacy, and there are good reasons for that.”

Celibacy, he said, is above all “a confession of faith in who Jesus is. If he is the one that the Church has understood, he is the son of the most heavenly father who was sent to the world to bring salvation to humanity and who so gave up his life for that in sacrifice, he is allowed to require everything from us as an act of faith, and he is ready to give back, so to speak, a friendship that is fulfilling.”

While he believes the Latin Church “has good reason to maintain its tradition” on celibacy, Ouellet said “it is open for discussion, today we discuss everything, so it is open for discussion, so it is being discussed here and there with different opinions.”

“I don’t know the future and what will be decided in 10, 20 years,” he said, but for now, the debate continues and “our focus is on the priesthood, not so much celibacy.”

The role of women

On Friday, the symposium will hear from a panel of women, both lay and consecrated, who will share their perspectives what role women can play in the Church.

Asked about the role and ministry of women in the Church given Pope Francis’s past assertions that the door to women’s priestly ordination remains closed, Ouellet said he believes “the Church needs more revolution” than to limit a woman’s role to ordained ministry.

“We are completely clerical,” he said. “Even laypeople, even journalist, are clerical. They think of everything from the ministerial priesthood, as if this is the main thing in the Church.”

The Church, he said, is not just the priesthood or the hierarchy, but consists of “the community of the baptized. We still have to learn that, we Catholics, and we have to recognize the part of women, respecting the woman, and acknowledging her value and her charisms, which are not small,” cannot be limited to one area.

Noting that for many people, women’s ordination would facilitate their meaningful contribution and input in important decision-making roles, Ouellet said women already hold positions of authority in both religious life and, increasingly, the Roman curia given several of Pope Francis’s recent appointments.

Authority and decision-making are not limited to the priesthood, he said, adding, “That is what we need to deepen theologically, also canonically” in order to “integrate better women in guiding the Church, in being part of the leadership of the Church, but from their charism.”

Ouellet said he believes synodality and the current Synod of Bishops exploring the topic will help in finding answers to the question of women’s involvement in the Church.

“Synodality is a movement – it is a movement now in the Church, from the laypeople, from the basis – we are invited, and in a special way we priest, and bishops, and cardinals, to listen carefully to what the Spirit is telling us today,” he said.

Women should have more than just a functional role, he said, voicing his belief that Pope Francis is already making strides in that regard through his curial appointments, which are made “Not on the basis of being ordained, but on the basis of being competent, being charismatic, and being recognized as such.”

“We have to be more creative to reform the Church, to take into account the charismatic dimension of the Church, in order to integrate (women) better, and I think it’s urgent,” he said, adding, “We cannot go forward without opening our minds and not just bending because there is pressure,” but in recognition of what women have to offer.

Regardless of whatever debates might come up, Ouellet voiced hope that attendees of the symposium will be “confirmed in their faith” and will “look forward with more hope.”

“If we do our mission, which is to be witnesses of Christ, if we do it the best we can in a world that is changing very much, which is not responding very much, but we are confirmed in the righteousness of our response to God, I think it will be an extraordinary moment of communion for all of these people…and they will return full of enthusiasm. That’s my hope,” he said.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen