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Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche communities, poses for a photograph after he received the Templeton Prize at St. Martins-in-the-Fields church in London, U.K., in May 2015. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

I once thought Catholic humanist Jean Vanier a hero. Now I’m wrestling with his coercive legacy

When Jean Vanier passed away in May 2019, the Canadian Catholic founder of the L'Arche International movement that challenged barriers between people with disabilities and able-bodied people was hailed as a “saviour to people on the margins.”

But since news of his abuse of six women broke in Feburary 2020, many who once thought him a hero have struggled to make sense of the man and his legacy.

I include myself in this group.

As a former caregiver of people with disablities, I came to see Vanier’s theology of disability as one that had the capacity to transform not only hearts and minds, but also communities and structures. But since learning of the abuse, I have come to see it otherwise.

Coercive underside

A report released by L'Arche International in February this year detailed that a comprehensive and impartial (non-judicial) inquiry found there was “sufficient evidence … that Jean Vanier engaged in manipulative sexual relationships with at least six adult (not disabled) women.”

Vanier had a PhD in philosophy and he wrote extensively about disability as informed by the Gospel. Among Catholics and some in the public in Canada and internationally, he came to hold a place of moral authority.

Yet as the L’Arche report attests, there was a coercive underside to Vanier’s life:

“The relationships involved various kinds of sexual behaviour often combined with so called ‘mystical and spiritual’ justifications for this conduct.… the alleged victims felt deprived of their free will and so the sexual activity was coerced or took place under coercive conditions ….”

As a religious studies scholar who has researched both how Christians understand Christ and feminist theology, I believe this coercive underside is intimately tied to Vanier’s theology. I also believe it was enabled by cultural and religious tolerance for the veneration of male religious leaders that simultaneously marginalizes women.

Jean Vanier following a news conference in London about his receipt of the Templeton Prize, in March 2015. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Women as not human

Throughout Vanier’s writing on disability, there remained a tendency to regard persons with disability as instrumental to our salvation, to human growth and development. Vanier wrote:

“What is true for people with disabilities is true for all those who are weak and in need. They call us to greater compassion, kindness, and tenderness. They can teach us to become human.”

Sadly, accounts presented by the inquiry suggest Vanier did not see women as unique human persons but rather regarded them as a “type.” For example, the L'Arche report quotes from a woman’s account of Vanier saying:

“This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special, this is secret.”

In Vanier’s apparent exaltation of the woman as the chosen and blessed Mary (Jesus’s mother), he also dehumanized her. There was no recourse to community, so central to Vanier’s vision of “becoming human”: instead the women were spiritualized, and he exploited them with impunity.

The autonomy of desire

In Vanier’s theology, he advocated the view that desire simply needs to be properly disciplined by the will. As Vanier wrote in one of his most scholarly works, Made for Happiness: Discovering the Meaning of Life with Aristotle:

“In themselves our desires tend to be chaotic, either excessive or defective. Like runaway, riderless horses, they await direction. Man’s proper task is to take hold of the reins and guide them … with all their fulminating energy, towards their sought-after end.”

What is immediately clear from reading the L'Arche report is Vanier not only lost control of these runaway horses — that is, his own lust — but that the end to which he was steering them was grotesquely self-serving.

Vanier tended to neglect sin in his description of human desire. For example, in his book Drawn Into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John, Vanier suggests sin is refusal. Sin is “the wall constructed that prevents us from being open to Jesus, to others, and to our deepest self.”

But perhaps Vanier’s unqualified openness to person-to-person encounters as positive exchanges prevented him from seeing how human relations are also fraught with coercion and asymmetrical power.

Conduit for devotion

The shadow side of desire — how desire is also intractable and easily bent on a lust for rule that can obliterate others’ needs or enable self-deception — was never adequately captured by Vanier’s theology. But it is patently clear in women’s accounts of abuse.

To one of the alleged victims, Vanier made the troubling claim that her love of Christ should be made manifest in her expression of love for Vanier himself, for he was a conduit through which his victim could express her devotion:

“When I expressed my astonishment saying … how could I manifest my love to Jesus and to him, he replied: ‘But Jesus and myself, this is not two, but we are one. … It is Jesus who loves you through me.”

The habit of baptizing human desire with divine intention and purposefulness has been a source of theological justification for more than one Christian sexual predator.

Guise of 'mystical doctrine’

Vanier’s secrecy extended beyond the abuses that he perpetuated. The L'Arche report found from the 1950s forward, Vanier maintained a close relationship with his spiritual mentor, Father Thomas Philippe, who sexually abused women under the guise of mystical doctrine.

A canonical trial condemned both the conduct and teachings of Father Philippe in 1956 after two women abused by the priest stepped forward. According to L'Arche’s report, “in 1956 there was no … doubt” that Vanier “had been informed of the reasons for the condemnation.”

The L'Arche report found that:

“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.”

After more allegations against Father Philippe emerged in 2014, Vanier issued statements in 2015 and 2016 and “essentially stated he was not aware of Father Thomas Philippe’s behaviour.”

Jean Vanier with Father Thomas Philippe, date unknown. A still taken from Radio Canada’s ‘Retour sur la vie du fondateur de l'Arche.’ ('Retour sur la vie du fondateur de l'Arche'/Radio Canada/le Téléjournal/YouTube)

Not only was Vanier aware, he was engaged in the same practices. One of the women testified that when she went to Father Thomas to seek his advice to discuss the “secret” with Jean Vanier, she was similarly abused:

“There was a curtain, and he sat on the bed. Before I could start talking about Jean Vanier, it started with him, the same as with Jean Vanier. He was not tender like Jean Vanier. More brutal … (and he used the) same words to say that I am special and that all this is about Jesus and Mary.”

Veneration for the (male) leader

Cultic veneration that surrounded Father Philippe was replicated in the kind of adoration Vanier received as a spiritual leader. This made it make it almost impossible for the women to come forward.

One woman testified:

“I was like frozen, I realized that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living Saint … I found it difficult to raise the issue.”

The veneration of the male religious leader is a common and pernicious habit of some Christian churches. In the Catholic Church, women have no hierarchical decision-making power and they cannot signify the holiness of Christ as men can. In this way, women lack spiritual authority and are discredited and marginalized.

The founder is not the community

The legacy of Jean Vanier will be forever compromised due to the nature and gravity of his actions.

This is not to say that the work of L’Arche is compromised. L’Arche consists of countless decent persons of goodwill whose work conforms to a vision that its founder could never quite attain.

Distinctions are important in theology as in life. The distinction to be made here is not between the sin and the sinner, for they are interdependent. The only distinction to be made is between the founder and the community that he helped found. There is one we must stand against and another we must stand behind.

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