The only way to describe the effect of these recent revelations about Jean Vanier on Catholics around the world is to say: It’s a shock wave.
We’ve just found out – thanks to an investigation organized by L’Arche itself – that the founder of that organization, revered for his personal sanctity and the wisdom of his teaching was also guilty of sexually abusing at least six women. Not only did he manipulate these women into intimate relations with himself, he did so while he was “ministering” to them in a time of crisis. In other words, he took advantage of someone who was vulnerable and didn’t respect their dignity and autonomy – the very opposite of everything L’Arche stands for.
(Note: Vanier, a theologian and humanitarian, died in May 2019 at the age of 90. He was the founder of L’Arche, an international community of individuals with intellectual disabilities and their supporters, and of Faith and Light, an ecumenical Christian association of prayer and friendship for those with intellectual disabilities and their families)
But it goes beyond that. Countless people took him as a personal inspiration. The way he had given up a life of comfort and privilege (his father had been Governor-General) to live in authentic community with people with intellectual disabilities, and the way he so astutely and insightfully explained our need to be authentic and humble, made him almost a kind of spiritual director to people who had never met him. Those people are now reeling, disgusted, confused, shaken. The same person who taught, and seemed to model, those things so beautifully was also a predator.
It isn’t just that he did great work and also committed evil deeds: it’s that his spiritual teaching was so powerful, yet, as a spiritual leader, he was also a predator. This makes it so much harder to separate his sins from his work. This is why the Bible comes down so harshly on teachers and church leaders who scandalize God’s flock, and why Jesus Himself said that anyone who causes His followers to stumble in their faith deserves to be tied to a rock and thrown into the sea (Matthew 18:6).
What do we do with this? I don’t think we can just sit in stunned silence, tempting as that is. For the sake of all the bearers of Christ within L’Arche, those with mental impairments who have found a family and a home within that community, we need to find some way to make sense of this – to make sense of how such light and such darkness came from the same source.
Over the last 24 hours, my mind keeps going back to a verse from the Book of Isaiah:
“Now the Lord is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants.” (Isaiah 24:1)
In the language of the ancient Near East, this is like describing a nuclear bomb going off. God is threatening -promising – that He is going to wring the earth like a wet cloth and devastate the land. This sounds a lot like what this recent report from L’Arche has done. The whole world seems to have been violently wrenched upside down.
Why does God say He will do this? Well, Isaiah is constantly denouncing false prophets, corrupt priests, and self-fattening rulers of God’s people. Finally, God has had enough. He’s going to wipe the whole slate clean. Unfortunately, that means He needs to bring down destruction to purify the whole mess. Isaiah even uses language that recalls Noah’s flood (24:18), where God had to drown the whole earth to cleanse it. (The Ark -L’Arche – survived that flood, lest we forget.)
God needs to do this sometimes. He needs to twist our world up in order to purge us of the evil that we’ve let slide – or maybe weren’t even aware of in the first place. If only the Catholic world had been hit with the earth-shattering revelations about the clerical sex abuse that was going on in the 1970s. If we’d had our world twisted up then, if we’d experienced that grief and confusion at the time, we might have done something about it sooner.
Vanier now shows us that it isn’t just priests, whose sexual predation might have been buoyed up and shielded by clericalism, who are capable of this. Charismatic and inspiring prophets, whose authority comes entirely from their own personality, can be just as wolvish – something that would not have been news to Isaiah. And this scandal reminds us that, if we want to be a Church where the vulnerable are protected, we can’t just focus on “reforming the clergy”, as important as that is.
We need a deeper conversion of all forms of authority in the Church, formal and informal, and, perhaps, a deeper hatred of sin. One glaring absence in Vanier’s thought – and, bluntly speaking, much of preaching and spirituality since Second Vatican Council (which addressed relations between the Church and the modern world) was a lack of emphasis on resisting personal sin. That sort of thing too often gets associated with legalism and Pharisaism, but it’s exactly the sort of thing that the Church Fathers were constantly warning about.
What about Vanier himself? He reminds me a bit of Balaam, the Moabite prophet from the Book of Numbers. He was sent by the Moabite king to pronounce a curse on Israel, but the Spirit of God compelled him to utter blessings on them instead, blessings which included prophecies about Jesus.
Yet this didn’t mean he wasn’t still hostile to God’s people. Instead, he incited the women of Moab to corrupt Israel through sexual seduction. This is an example from Scripture of a prophet through whom God spoke and blessed His children – who was also a malevolent figure who used sexuality to hurt them.
This, ultimately, should be encouraging to those who were inspired by him. It reminds us that even an enemy can still speak true and beautiful words directly from God that we can, in some inexplicable way, trust and use in building our lives on Christ. The holiness and grace we see in L’Arche, which seemed to flow out from him, is real, and it, too, will survive this destruction of the earth.
Finally, Isaiah adds a cryptic but comforting note. Yes, God will bring destruction on the land, but remember this piece of agricultural custom: “Grain is crushed for bread, but one does not thresh it forever: one drives the cart wheel and horses over it, but does not pulverize it. This also comes from the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 28:28-29). In other words, God will have to crush us in order to make us into the Eucharistic body that He wants us to be, but He won’t do this to us forever, and He won’t grind us into dust. He’s not out to destroy us: He’s out to make us into something better, closer to Himself.
Cutting off the tumour of Vanier’s tainted legacy is a painful operation. But, after the surgery, if we listen to Him and let Him teach us, we’ll come out healthier, stronger, and more like the loving and safe community that Vanier described, but did not always create.
–Brett Fawcett is a teacher and columnist. He has degrees in theology and education and is the winner of the 2018 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Social Studies Education.