The fall of a spiritual giant

Jean Vanier and friends 

Over the years, MercatorNet  has published a number of articles about Jean Vanier, the Canadian who founded L’Arche, a network of 153 communities with a Christian ethos caring for the intellectually disabled. Admired and loved by people around the world, he died last year at the age of 90.

Vanier was a giant of a man, physically and spiritually. Or seemed to be. He spoke eloquently about human dignity, especially the dignity of the disabled. Where others saw a troublesome, slow, broken individual, he saw wonder and beauty.

He was an inspiring figure, the winner of many awards, including the US$1.7 million Templeton Prize in 2015 for affirming “life’s spiritual dimension”.

And he was a fraud.

Over the weekend, l’Arche announced credible allegations that Vanier had sexually abused at least six adult women between 1970 and 2005. (None of them, l'Arche insists, were disabled.) It had engaged independent investigators to examine Vanier’s life, private correspondence and contacts. They confirmed the women's stories and unearthed a disturbing back-story. 

The leaders of L’Arche International, Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates Carney, admitted in a letter to their members:

“For many of us, Jean was one of the people we loved and respected the most. Jean inspired and comforted many people around the world … and we are aware that this information will cause many of us, both inside and outside L’Arche, deep confusion and pain. While the considerable good he did throughout his life is not in question, we will nevertheless have to mourn a certain image we may have had of Jean and of the origins of L’Arche.”

As often happens with such scandals, we have to be prepared for other lurid revelations. The report was based on the experiences of the six women who had independently approached l’Arche, but there could be more, especially in the years before 1970.

Worse, perhaps, is that Vanier, when questioned by l’Arche officials before he died about his relationship with his own spiritual mentor, Father Thomas Philippe, a Dominican, appears to have lied to them.

Father Philippe, who died in 1993, is an example of the creepiest perversion of Catholic piety. Vanier openly acknowledged his debt to Father Philippe, whom he first met in 1950: “Father Thomas' theology gave me strong and solid principles. I've never really looked for one anywhere else. … I am steeped in the thought and method of Father Thomas.” Alas, that was all too true. 

And he was not his only admirer. “What Father Zosina had been for Dostoevski in nineteenth-century Rome, Père Thomas was for many in twentieth-century France,” wrote a theologian in 1990 in a preface to Father Philippe’s book on contemplation.

Unfortunately, this man was, to be blunt, a sexual monster masquerading as saint. “When one arrives at perfect love, everything is lawful, for there is no more sin,” he would tell his victims. 

Some women complained about him in the early 1950s, around the time that Vanier was exploring his vocation. The Vatican reacted swiftly. The priest was tried within the Church and forbidden to carry out any public or private ministry: no celebration of the sacraments, no spiritual direction, and no preaching.

Vanier was a layman but he was fully informed about the Vatican's decision. He ignored it. Notwithstanding strict instructions, Father Philippe kept up a clandestine correspondence with Vanier. In one letter cited by the investigators he even instructed him on how to groom a particular woman. The report concludes:

Because Jean Vanier did not denounce the theories and practices of Father Thomas Philippe of which Jean Vanier was personally aware as early as the 1950s, it was possible, for Father Thomas Philippe to continue his sexual abuse of women in L'Arche and it allowed Father Thomas Philippe to expand his spiritual influence on founders and members of other communities.

Not only did he abuse women, by his silence Vanier enabled others’ abuse as well.

All this is gut-wrenching for Catholics who revered Vanier as a saint. And for the editors of MercatorNet, too, because his message of the profound depths of human dignity resonated with our editorial policy.

What can we say about this scandal? Coming after an avalanche of abuse scandals in the Catholic Church (and other churches as well) and #MeToo revelations in public life, some will claim that it adds another squalid chapter proving that Christian sexual morality is impossible in contemporary society. But this would be a mistake. 

First, it reminds us that even great men who have done great good can be morally inconsistent. It's part of the mystery of the human condition. Martin Luther King Jr was an even more revered figure who, we now know, was guilty of ''compulsive sexual athleticism'' and perhaps even rape. Unfortunately, his hypocrisy has tainted that legacy. It makes him vulnerable to mockery by racists, just as Vanier’s abuse will expose the faith which inspired his work to sneers and ridicule.

Despite these revelations, Vanier has left a legacy of devotion to the intellectually disabled. His work has brought happiness and a sense of worth into many lives. He gave people who had been warehoused in grim institutions a loving family life. This can't erase his failings but it must be taken into account. 

Second, Christian sexual morality is possible. The lives of countless Christians, young and old, married and unmarried, are a bright witness to this incontestable fact.

Unhappily, Vanier’s posthumous disgrace means that Catholics are going to be heaped with mockery at that idea. After all, it will be said, Father Philippe was a consecrated celibate; Vanier never married, dedicating himself to his work with l’Arche, and they both betrayed their vocations. Better the consistency of an amoral libertine than the inconsistency of a moralising hypocrite.

However, l’Arche’s report makes it abundantly clear that these men failed not because they were orthodox Catholics, but because they were obdurately unorthodox. They had created a depraved secret cult masked by manipulative spirituality. The Catholic Church has guidelines for spiritual accompaniment based on centuries of experience. One of them is expressed in a vivid Spanish proverb, "Entre santa y santo, pared de cal y canto, Twixt holy man and holy maid, a wall of solid stone be laid." They ignored this elementary safeguard. Vulnerable women paid the price for their heresy. 

Christianity sets a high standard for sexual morality. "Purity of heart" not a popular idea today. But many people find in Christian doctrines and piety the strength to live modest, chaste and happy lives. The philosopher Karl Popper used to say that one exception falsifies a whole theory. But human beings are inconsistent, almost by definition. Just as the failings of Jean Vanier or Martin Luther King Jr don’t invalidate their work, they don’t undermine the moral code they preached. 

As MercatorNet wrote about King, “What King did to women -- allegedly did -- is appalling. But the shadows of the valleys highlight the light on the hilltops of his achievements. Rather than expunge him from children’s history lessons, we should teach them that even flawed and imperfect men and women can serve humanity.”

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet  


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