How can I reconcile the good and evil of Jean Vanier?

February 23, 2020
Posted in Blog
February 23, 2020 Editor

How can I reconcile the good and evil of Jean Vanier?

Please click on audio of post. NOTE: only main text read; no links, text markings, images, videos, footnotes, etc. read aloud.

photo above: Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, is pictured in a Feb. 17, 2015, photo. (CNS photo/courtesy Jean Vanier Association) 

WN: What does one do with this revelation of a man almost universally considered a saint? My mind goes to: what, in the end is the difference between Vanier and (dare I type it) vile lying, multi-abusive Trump? Both trade/d in lies and false lives. Both put narcissistic self-gratification first at the expense of profound trauma inflicted on victims. Yes, both were/are frauds. My mind and heart have reeled since first knowing of this horror . . . And I look at my own sins of commission and omission . . .

Please read the letter by L’Arche International disclosing to its community–and the world–the profound decades-long tragedy for all the abused women.

Please see the reflection piece by Father Thomas Reese: “When Saints Fail“. I appreciate his commentary:

Vanier was once talked about as a possible recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, even canonization. To discover that such a person was a fraud makes me angry.

At the same time, I ask myself, why am I surprised? History has taught us the flawed and sinful character of most famous men. Some of the founding fathers fathered children with their slaves. History is full of bad popes, bishops and priests. European and American history is full of great leaders and thinkers who were anti-Semites and racists.

During my lifetime, John Kennedy and Thomas Merton had their affairs. The “Me Too” movement has ripped away the curtain to expose men who are not the gentlemen they projected publicly.

Even the Scriptures describe people as flawed who played important roles in salvation history: Eve, Abraham, Moses, David and the Twelve. It is nearly impossible to find an important figure in the Bible who is not also a sinner. In Mark’s Gospel, nobody understands Jesus, not even his mother (Mark 3).

Does that mean that we must discard everything these sinners did? Do we stop honoring Abraham because he pimped his wife to Pharaoh in exchange for livestock and slaves? Do we stop praying the psalms because David had Uriah killed so he could have his wife Bathsheba? Do we burn the books of Thomas Merton because he had an affair? Do we close down L’Arche because Vanier abused his position as a spiritual father?

But forgiveness is something else.

I can forgive Eve, the Twelve, Merton and sins of weakness, but I am not ready to forgive Abraham, David, Theodore McCarrick, Vanier, Harvey Weinstein and others who abused their power to prey on the vulnerable. I will leave their forgiveness to God.

I am still angry because of the harm done to the people who were exploited by these men. I am also angry because they have made me a cynic when it comes to great artists, politicians and religious leaders. It has gotten to the point where I even take Mother Teresa, Pope Francis and Big Bird with a grain of salt.

Please also see: ” “Prison, Sexual Assault, and Editing John Howard Yoder: One Man’s Story” by Andy Alexis-Baker.”

Jim Wallis of Sojourners writes:

I’ve been reflecting on some of the similarities and differences between what seems to have happened between Vanier and those he targeted and Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder‘s abuse of more than 100 women. The similarity I find the most striking is the way a teaching, mentoring, pastoral, or even spiritual direction relationship was so closely connected — and, it seems, warped and manipulated — to serve the desires and purposes of a powerful man. [Head of L’Arche USA Tina] Bovermann spoke to me of the “pseudo-mystical justification” Vanier and his mentor Thomas Phillipe seem to have employed with their victims, each other, and themselves in rationalizing their actions. That strikes me as similar to the pseudo-ethical arguments Yoder always made in his own defense. The insidious nature of spiritual manipulation and abuse — which has driven so many from the church, as it can no longer be a safe place — threatens Christian witness and, indeed, the lives and spiritual health of all people.

For sure . . .

Brett Fawcett in “The Sinner and the Sin” writes in Conviviuum:

[Vanier] presented sexual intercourse with himself as a kind of mystical experience into which he was inviting his victims. He offered “spiritual accompaniment” to women who had come to him because they were undergoing a crisis and thus were already vulnerable. He turned it into physical molestation. He pretended it was a kind of “care of souls.” Yet the same man who said, “To love someone is to show them their beauty, their worth, and their importance” reportedly told one woman whom he was trying to seduce, “It is Jesus who loves you through me.”

Vanier was worse than a hypocrite. His sins seem to discredit his entire thought and, with it, his entire work. How can we take his spiritual counsel seriously when we see what he used his spiritual counsel for behind closed doors? How can we hear his words about community being a place where we lower our walls and share with each other when we know how he invaded other people’s intimacy under the guise of mentorship? To think of the multitudes of people living in L’Arche—those innocent, childlike people, blissfully unaware of Vanier and his crimes—who now unwittingly exist in the shadow of these findings is sickening.

Here is what makes Vanier’s wrong most painful of all: His public teaching was true. His simple but pointed advice on love and community was correct. Our lived experience rebels against this choice.

So, what is left? If we can’t get rid of the teacher or the teaching, I think all that’s left for us is to find a new place for Vanier within his own thought. In other words, we need to see him as the kind of villain he so astutely warns us against.

We could make an analogy to the clerical abuse crisis. Priestly child rape does not discredit the Mass. On the contrary, the Mass’ re-enactment of Christ, the Hostium—“Victim”—being violated, His nakedness displayed on the crucifix, by the slithering, Satanic forces of this age for our salvation, is an indictment of the pedophile priest performing the ritual. The bleeding Body that is present as the Eucharist identifies with the trembling, assaulted body of the priest’s innocent prey.

Vanier admitted, “Those of us with power and social standing have subtle ways of hiding our inner handicaps, our difficulties in relationships, our inner darkness and violence, our depression and lack of self-confidence.” He recognized the dangers of authority even as he became just as disrespectful of others’ dignity. Perhaps it was a form of his self-awareness? Elsewhere in Becoming Human, he says that violence needs to be understood as an admittedly inappropriate form of communication and we need to listen to the message behind it. What was his own sexual violation of others saying? Did it come from his own fundamentally unfulfilled loneliness? 

It may be hard to see how someone could be predatory and yet teach so beautifully about Christ. Yet we should remember the prophet Balaam from the Book of Numbers, who set out to curse Israel and who managed to successfully corrupt them, and yet who was so filled with the Spirit of God that, almost unwillingly, he pronounced blessings on God’s people that resonate throughout salvation history. 

How such darkness and such light could flow from the same mouth will always be a mystery to us. But we can take solace and be affirmed in the necessity of L’Arche and its mission by recognizing that the great merit of Vanier’s teaching is how illuminating it is about, and how harshly it condemns, the failures of Vanier himself.

An accompanying article by Raymond J. de Souza, “On Being Jean Vanier“,  poses a simple question: “How do we deal with the latterly revealed corruptions of public figures?”.

At the end of this superb reflection he offers what must constantly reverberate for us all:

So how could such a saintly man do such wicked things? And if such a saintly man could do such wicked things, then what then am I capable of, who am not so saintly? What then are we all capable of, given the wrong combination of temptations and circumstance?

That might be the most frightening question of all.

Amen!

As I continue to reflect on the Vanier tragedy, I think: If he only knew that the consolation and joy of an authentic Christian spiritual path is on a whole different level/dimension of experience that renders utterly despicable his grasping at “the pleasures of sin for a season”! C.S. Lewis: “Aim at heaven, and you will get earth thrown in; aim at earth, and you will get neither.” Vanier at least in part wasted a life aiming at chimera . . .

excerpts:

I keep a photo of Jean Vanier on my desk. It is painful to look at today.

I’ve written almost completely uncritically about the founder of L’Arche several times at America: I called him a “revered spiritual master and prophetic voice” whose messages “always bear repeating” in a review of his last book; I wrote America’s obituary of Vanier; I teared up on camera while talking with Tina Bovermann of L’Arche USA about Vanier’s life.

Now, L’Arche has released an internal report detailing credible allegations of sexual abuse against Vanier by six non-disabled women. The report says that Vanier initiated sex in the context of spiritual direction and offered “highly unusual spiritual or mystical explanations used to justify these behaviors.” This kind of behavior echoes the sexual abuse perpetrated by Vanier’s spiritual mentor, Father Thomas Philippe. The new L’Arche report also shows that Vanier lied about how much he had known about accusations against Father Philippe.

Ms. Bovermann, the L’Arche spokeswoman I interviewed just after Vanier’s death, spoke to my colleague Michael J. O’Loughlin about the abuse allegations against Vanier: “I can’t wrap my head around it,” she said.

Nor can I.

Part of me wonders now if I was foolish, if I should have known better than to valorize any Catholic this way after watching Theodore McCarrick’s precipitous fall from grace in 2018 or even watching St. John Paul II’s record on sexual abuse be called into serious question after hearing the crowds chant “Santo Subito” in 2005. If such widely respected men could commit decades of abuse or turn a blind eye to allegations, why should I have believed Jean Vanier could not do the same?

I think of the women who had to endure the trauma of hearing a man who had sexually manipulated them be called a “living saint” when he was alive and as the world eulogized him. Although none of the women’s allegations were public until this morning, perhaps if those of us praising him had thought more critically about Vanier’s relationship with Father Philippe, we would at least have been more hesitant to canonize Vanier in our popular imagination.

Mourning and grappling with the upsetting paradox of Jean Vanier has made me angry, but I am trying to resist letting it drive me to despair. I can no longer in good conscience call Jean Vanier a saint, nor will I hypothesize about any conversion he may have had before or after his death, but I cannot accept the disturbing truth about him as proof, as some have understood it, that sanctity does not exist. Rather, I think it challenges us to consider our own and others’ simultaneous capacity for profound goodness and evil, to seek models of holiness away from the world’s spotlight and to pursue holiness ourselves far from the spotlight, at the bottom of the ladder.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.]

Please click on: Jean Vanier Sexual Predator

  1. [1]Please look at several articles as well on American/Western will to world domination by clicking on "Selected Articles: Western Aggression Backed by Western Media”. The series of articles is introduced thus:
    The Western allies never run dry of resources to support their global war of terror and aggression, ostensibly an integral part of their foreign policy. They dynamically legislate laws lest the people awaken. They have the unbending support of the corporate media, which skilfully distorts reality. When will they ever back down from their destructive quest for colonies? Read our selection below.
  2. [2]It continued:
    ‘For seven months, Tiger Force soldiers moved across the Central Highlands, killing scores of unarmed civilians – in some cases torturing and mutilating them - in a spate of violence never revealed to the American public,’ the newspaper said, at other points describing the killing of hundreds of unarmed civilians. ‘Women and children were intentionally blown up in underground bunkers,’ The Blade said. ‘Elderly farmers were shot as they toiled in the fields. Prisoners were tortured and executed - their ears and scalps severed for souvenirs. One soldier kicked out the teeth of executed civilians for their gold fillings.”   The New York Times confirmed the claimed accuracy of the stories by contacting several of those interviewed.  It reported: “But they wanted to make another point: that Tiger Force had not been a ‘rogue’ unit. Its members had done only what they were told, and their superiors knew what they were doing. “Burning huts and villages, shooting civilians and throwing grenades into protective shelters were common tactics for American ground forces throughout Vietnam, they said. That contention is backed up by accounts of journalists, historians and disillusioned troops… ‘Vietnam was an atrocity from the get-go,’ [one veteran] said in a recent telephone interview. ‘It was that kind of war, a frontless war of great frustration. There were hundreds of My Lais. You got your card punched by the numbers of bodies you counted.’ Current likely Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry was also quoted giving evidence before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971.  He reported that American soldiers in Vietnam had “raped, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country. Nicholas Turse [later author of: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam], a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, has been studying government archives and said they were filled with accounts of similar atrocities. ''I stumbled across the incidents The Blade reported,'' Mr. Turse said by telephone. ''I read through that case a year, year and a half ago, and it really didn't stand out. There was nothing that made it stand out from anything else. That's the scary thing. It was just one of hundreds.'' Yet there were few prosecutions.
  3. [3]Historian John Coatsworth in The Cambridge History of the Cold War noted:
    Between 1960, by which time the Soviets had dismantled Stalin's gulags, and the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. In other words, from 1960 to 1990, the Soviet bloc as a whole was less repressive, measured in terms of human victims, than many individual Latin American countries [under direct sway of US Empire] ("The Cold War in Central America", pp. 216 - 221).
    What was true for Latin America was true for around the world: massive human rights abuses, assassinations, regime changes of democratically elected governments, etc., etc., etc. orchestrated by US Empire. Yet Americans invariably have wanted it both ways: to be seen as the exemplary "City on A Hill" that upholds universal human rights and democracy, while operating a brutal Empire directly contrary to all such elevated values, and a concomitant rapacious Empire market economy that takes no prisoners. This began of course even before the founding of the United States of America and continued apace, in its mass slaughter and dispossession of indigenous peoples, in its brutal system of slavery on which its obscene wealth in the textile industry in the first place was built. "The Land of the Free" conceit was a sustained con job on the part of America's leaders. It was also apotheosis of hypocrisy. American exceptionalism was/is true in one respect only: it was brutal like no other Empire in its eventual global reach.
  4. [5]
  5. [4] The highlighted article about renowned whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg points to again what is utterly chilling, horror-filled, exponentially beyond immoral, American (hence the world's) reality: "Daniel Ellsberg: U.S. Military Planned First Strike On Every City In Russia and China … and Gave Many Low-Level Field Commanders the Power to Push the Button". [5]He has since written The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Of it we read:
    Shortlisted for the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist for the California Book Award in Nonfiction The San Francisco Chronicle's Best of 2017 List In These Times “Best Books of 2017” Huffington Post's Ten Excellent December Books List LitHub's “Five Books Making News This Week” From the legendary whistle-blower who revealed the Pentagon Papers, an eyewitness exposé of the dangers of America's Top Secret, seventy-year-long nuclear policy that continues to this day. Here, for the first time, former high-level defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg reveals his shocking firsthand account of America's nuclear program in the 1960s. From the remotest air bases in the Pacific Command, where he discovered that the authority to initiate use of nuclear weapons was widely delegated, to the secret plans for general nuclear war under Eisenhower, which, if executed, would cause the near-extinction of humanity, Ellsberg shows that the legacy of this most dangerous arms buildup in the history of civilization--and its proposed renewal under the Trump administration--threatens our very survival. No other insider with high-level access has written so candidly of the nuclear strategy of the late Eisenhower and early Kennedy years, and nothing has fundamentally changed since that era.
  6. [6]A classic instance of this aligning with "just war" is the United States' "war on drugs" as subset of "war on crime", while at the same time the CIA was a major worldwide drug dealer in league with other drug cartels -- all done to enhance American Empire during the Cold War -- and continues to the present. The four-part series mentioned below connects American Empire drug dealing to the current War on Terror, in particular in Afghanistan. This of course is colossal hypocrisy as well. Worse: the series posits American federal government administrations over many decades as the Ultimate Drug Cartel, with Blacks, Latinos, and generally the poor directly being knowingly poisoned en masse. Then they have been primary targets of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and thereby become victims of America's too often savage prison system that oppresses and brutalizes them all over again... See: "The War on Drugs Is a Failure, So [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions Is All for It". A citation from the article reads:
    In June [2017], the History Channel aired a four-part documentary series called America’s War on Drugs.” The series asserts that the war on drugs was actually a war of drugs—and that the CIA was essentially a partner in spreading drugs and drug use. The series follows how the U.S. intelligence agency, in an obsession with fighting communism, allied itself with U.S. organized crime and foreign drug traffickers and includes firsthand accounts from many involved. In an interview with Truthdig columnist Sonali Kolhatkar on her radio program “Rising Up With Sonali,” the series’ executive producer, Anthony Lappé, explains why the CIA got involved:
    It’s actually a pretty mind-blowing story when you look at the extent to which the CIA was involved with drug traffickers and drug trafficking throughout the Cold War. … If you look at Cold War policy against the Soviet Union, we were locked in a global battle for supremacy, where we have lots of proxy wars going on. … We needed to team up with local allies, and often the local allies we were teaming up with were people who had access to guns, who had access to underground networks, to help us fight the perceived threat of communism. There are actually a lot of similarities between what drug traffickers do and what the CIA does.
    Lappé elaborates by saying the hypocrisy of the war on drugs has been evident from the start: Secret CIA experiments with LSD helped fuel the counterculture movement, leading to President Richard Nixon’s crackdown and declaration of the war on drugs. The series also explores the CIA’s role in the rise of crack cocaine in poor black communities and a secret island “cocaine base.” In addition the documentary makes the connection between the war on drugs, the war on terror and the transformation of Afghanistan into a narco state and contends that American intervention in Mexico helped give clout to Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and the super cartels, making it easier to send drugs across American borders. Watch Kolhatkar’s full interview with Lappé by clicking here. Please also see the now classic: The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, by noted American historian Alfred McCoy. Of it we read:
    The first book to prove CIA and U.S. government complicity in global drug trafficking, The Politics of Heroin includes meticulous documentation of dishonesty and dirty dealings at the highest levels from the Cold War until today. Maintaining a global perspective, this groundbreaking study details the mechanics of drug trafficking in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central America. New chapters detail U.S. involvement in the narcotics trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan before and after the fall of the Taliban, and how U.S. drug policy in Central America and Colombia has increased the global supply of illicit drugs.
    To be noted as well is Johann Hari's Chasing The Scream, which tells the tragic tale of America's long-standing offensive against drugs, and the way to end such a war worldwide -- that several nations are successfully embracing.

Editor

Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 × one =

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Care to follow posts?

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox (unsubscribe any time):