A Theo-Politics of Coercion – The Heresies of Jean Vanier

The first L’Arch house, L’Arche Bognor, in Trosly, France, founded in 1964.
Christopher Bemrose, https://flic.kr/p/8j5f8Y

Jean Vanier was a hero to many, myself included. When I was in my undergraduate and master’s degrees, I was a live-in caregiver for persons with mental challenges. I later volunteered at at L’Arche community. I came to see Vanier’s theology of disability as not only a pastoral theology, but a political one as well – one which had the capacity to transform not only hearts and minds, but also communities and structures. His theology was, to me, what Stanley Hauerwas called, “a politics of gentleness.” Since the news of his abuse of six women broke, I have come to see it otherwise, because, as the L’Arche Report attests, there was a coercive underside to Vanier’s life, and it is one that I believe is intimately tied to his theology.

When the scandal broke, the response on my social media feed was swiftly conciliatory. A particular Christian habit of thought quickly emerged –one which opined that Vanier was like the rest of us – partly good, partly bad – but that the good outweighed the bad. Or, as others put it, “We are all sinners.” What does the immediate and instinctive exoneration of Vanier say about his theology and our own? And, more specifically, how does faulty theology both enable and perpetuate the kind of serious sexual misconduct in which Vanier was involved?

First Heresy: Women are not Human
The drive to exonerate Vanier has much to do with the manner in which women are regarded in the Church –that is, as less than human. Indeed, throughout social media responses, the terrible details of Vanier’s targeted and repeated sexual abuse of women were conspicuously ignored.

At first glance it striking that the perspective of the victim was overlooked, particularly since Vanier himself seemed to be exemplary in its capacity to see those who have gone unnoticed. But did he? Throughout Vanier’s writing on disability, such as in “The Need of Strangers,” there remained a tendency to regard persons with disability as instrumental to our salvation, to our human growth and development: “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, the six women he abused are granted neither compassion nor kindness nor tenderness, in spite of the need that they expressed when they went to Vanier for spiritual direction. Their humanity was not protected or cherished. Instead, they became a type – the chosen and blessed Mary. In his exaltation of them, he also dehumanized them. They had no recourse to community, so central to Vanier’s vision of “becoming human,” instead they were spiritualized and privatized so that he could exploit them with immunity. As he told one of his victims: “This is not us, this is Mary and Jesus. You are chosen, you are special; this is secret.”

Second Heresy – The Cult of the (Male) Saint
Vanier’s secrecy extended beyond the abuses that he perpetuated; he also colluded with the sexual violence perpetrated by his hero, Father Thomas Philippe. Father Philippe was the creator of L’Eau Vive, a community that taught contemplative living. According to the Report, Vanier was aware of his mentor’s abuse of women since the 1950s, although he repeatedly denied it. Not only was he aware, he was engaged in the self-same practices, at times with the same women. As one of the women testified:

“In 19XX, (….) I decided to go and see Father Thomas to seek his advice. I wanted to talk about (….) our secret with Jean Vanier. (…). 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, no intercourse, same words to say that I am special and that all this is about Jesus and Mary.”

The veneration of Philippe would soon be replicated in the kind of adoration that Vanier received as a spiritual leader, veneration that would make it almost impossible for the women to come forward. As one of the women testified:

“I was like frozen, I realised that Jean Vanier was adored by hundreds of people, like a living Saint, that he talked about how he helped victims of sexual abuse, it appeared like a camouflage and I found it difficult to raise the issue.”

The veneration of the male religious leader is a common and pernicious habit of the Christian church. It gives male religious authority unfettered power, while conversely it works to discredit and marginalize women. It was at play almost immediately in the aftermath of the Vanier scandal, as Vanier’s devotees – male and female alike – made an immediate effort to pardon him and vilify the women. It is to the profound credit to L’Arche International that it refused to downplay the seriousness of Vanier’s deeds, and conducted a full and thorough investigation, and then condemned his actions without equivocation.

Third Heresy – The Autonomy of Desire
One of the hallmarks of Vanier’s Thomism is the manner in which he views desire. Desire, according to Vanier’s natural theology, simply needs to be properly formed or disciplined by the will. As Vanier wrote in one of his most scholarly works, Made for Happiness:

“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, to orient these desires, with all their fulminating energy, towards their sought-after end.”

What is immediately clear from reading the Report is that Vanier not only lost control of these runaway horses – i.e., his own lust – but that the end to which he was steering them was grotesquely coercive and self-serving. In other words, within the very desire that animated Vanier’s spiritual vision there existed a shadow side, one that drove him to exploitative relationships. The shadow side of desire – its intractability, its rootedness in violent ideologies, and a lust for rule – is never adequately captured by Vanier’s theology, although it is patently clear in his interactions with women. To one of the victims, Vanier made the troubling claim that her love of Christ should be made manifest in her expression 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.'”

I daresay that 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. Feminist theory has long taught us that desire bends to the dictates not merely of the will, but also to the tacit forces that shape us, including wide-scale misogyny and those sadistic powers that confuse coercion with compassion, and violence with love.

In the end, I believe that the legacy of Jean Vanier is forever tarnished due to the nature and the gravity of his actions. This is not to say that the work of L’Arche is tarnished. 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 that we must stand against and another that we must stand behind.

Jane Barter is a priest in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, who is currently serving St. Peter, Dynevor (Selkirk), St. Phillip (Hodgson), and St. Matthew (Peguis). She is also Professor of Religion and Culture at The University of Winnipeg. 

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