The Great Fruit of L’Arche Came Despite Jean Vanier’s Sins

COMMENTARY: Catholics have a right to be both angry and confused, sad and perplexed by the revelation of the L’Arche founder’s grave sexual misconduct.

Jean Vanier poses at home on Sept. 23, 2014, in Trosly-Breuil, France.
Jean Vanier poses at home on Sept. 23, 2014, in Trosly-Breuil, France. (photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP via Getty Images)

The revelation that Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche and the associated Faith and Light movement, had sexual relationships with at least six women over some three decades elicits shock and pain on many levels.

The misconduct was reported by L’Arche after an external investigation, which began last year as Vanier was dying. The relationships — which did not involve people with intellectual disabilities — were in the context of spiritual guidance, in which “spiritual” or “mystical” reasons were given for the sexual relations. The conduct was gravely sinful, manipulative and sacrilegious.

Vanier died in May 2019. A woman had made allegations against Vanier in March 2019; a full external report was decided upon in April 2019 and commissioned in June 2019. It was that report that was released last week. 

There was an allegation against Vanier in 2016 from another woman that was investigated by L’Arche at the time. Vanier acknowledged that sexual relationship but defended it as consensual. It was not publicly revealed at the time, but it means that at the time of Vanier’s death, L’Arche’s international leadership knew about at least one sexual relationship which Vanier had admitted to.

It appears that Vanier adopted the practices of his “spiritual father,” Father Thomas Philippe, with whom Vanier began living in the L’Eau Vive community of France in 1950. Father Philippe was investigated for sexual misconduct in 1952 and removed from his position. He was dismissed from the clerical state in 1956 after a Vatican investigation. Vanier defied the Vatican sanctions regarding Philippe and facilitated him meeting clandestinely with the members of the suppressed L’Eau Vive. Later Vanier would bring Philippe back into proximity with L’Arche at Trosly, France, the international headquarters where Vanier lived.

Philippe died in 1993, and a further investigation into his misconduct was completed in 2014-2015. At that time, Vanier publicly denied knowing anything about the sexual misconduct, even though he had been aware of it — as well as having participated in it — for 60 years.

The combination of facilitating the behavior of Philippe, exposing new victims to him, committing the same acts himself and then lying about it all afterwards all make the Vanier case one of the worst sexual scandals in the Church, even though this did not involve minors or disabled people.

For the tens of millions of people who intensely admired Jean Vanier and were inspired by him, the results of the investigations are difficult to believe, an entire lifetime of lies and corruption alongside his celebrated work as founder of L’Arche.


The Question of Holiness

The report makes clear that for the entirety of L’Arche’s existence the founder was in an objective state of mortal sin. Though it cannot be known, it would seem improbable that Vanier himself did not know this or was not culpable by reason of lack of knowledge or will. The alternative would be that he was entirely delusional, or suffering from some severe mental illness.

What, then, to make of Vanier’s global reputation for holiness — a “living saint” — and his spiritual writings that brought such light to so many?

It is a pious commonplace in the Church, oft repeated at the highest levels, that the fruitfulness of a mission is rooted in the holiness of the founder, the priest, the missionary. In Vanier’s case, it would appear not to be true. The great fruitfulness of L’Arche came in spite of his sexual sins and dishonesty. The Church does not have well-developed categories to explain this phenomenon, of pastoral fruitfulness that coexists with a lack of personal integrity.

Vanier is not the first such founder in this situation, but at the time of his death, it would be fair to say that no other Catholic in the world had a greater reputation for holiness. A fallen cardinal or other high-ranking official is a great scandal, but a fallen “saint” is much more serious, for holiness is the very reason for the Church.

A more complex problem is to consider that Vanier truly was holy, the evidence for which is immense, but that his holiness was that of a repentant sinner, a struggling sinner, a man whose life is mostly upright but with serious falls into sin. Only those who knew his soul from the inside could attempt to answer that question, but the report indicates a man who over a very long time suppressed the truth about himself and denied the truth about others. That doesn’t look, from the outside, like a struggling and repentant sinner.


A Secular Saint?

Vanier was unusual in that he was widely admired by secular audiences. That was in large part because, unlike Mother Teresa, he chose not to speak on the controverted moral issues. St. Teresa of Calcutta spoke about abortion when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and about contraception at Washington’s National Prayer Breakfast. Vanier largely eschewed those topics and preferred to speak about brokenness and littleness and woundedness, and about learning to love from those, who in their weakness, depend entirely upon trusting others. Though deeply rooted in the Catholic tradition, he expressed himself in a way that was quite palatable to the cultural left. He received the 2015 Templeton Prize and France’s Legion of Honor. A documentary of his life, Jean Vanier, the Sacrament of Tenderness, was shown at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.

Vanier was admired and popular by those, both within and without the Church, who lived the corporal works of mercy, the care of the vulnerable, with doctrinal questions largely set aside. The revelations thus will touch a wide audience far beyond the Catholic world, perhaps questioning whether the evident goodness of his work was somehow not real.


The Good Is Real and Remains

But the goodness of L’Arche is real, as are the books he wrote, the talks he gave, the tens of thousands he inspired. The man manifestly lacked integrity, but the good works remain and the works are his.

Sacred Scripture does not hide the sins and failings of its most prominent figures — Noah, Jacob, Moses, David, Peter and the Apostles. Scripture gives us the sins and also the repentance. Moses and David have feast days in the Roman martyrology.

Vanier’s case is more like that of Martin Luther King Jr. Revelations after his death of academic fraud (plagiarism) and serial adultery have damaged his reputation as a role model, but not as a political figure of consequence. His double life may be why his primary identity — a Baptist minister — is downplayed and his civil-rights activism is emphasized.

It may be in time that Vanier will be regarded in the same way, a man who pioneered a new way of respecting the dignity of the intellectually disabled and who inspired thousands to live in solidarity with them. But he will no longer be regarded as a holy man, a saint, but, rather, a compromised man who did many holy things and inspired others to be holy.

For Catholics, the Vanier revelations are evidence that sexual misconduct is a temptation that is experienced and indulged in all ecclesial circumstances. It is a not a priestly phenomenon alone, nor is it limited to clerical environments. It is not a product of traditional or conservative cultures; it can emerge even in the freshness and vigor of new movements.

The leaders of L’Arche International, Stephan Posner and Stacy Cates Carney, wrote about the results of the investigation, saying that this misconduct is the opposite of “the values Jean Vanier otherwise stood for.”

That “otherwise” applies not just to his values but his lifelong work.

If Vanier’s sexual misconduct was just a contradiction of his teachings, then he would be a hypocrite. But his misconduct was at odds with his conduct; his hidden, shameful life at odds with his admirable life seen by all. That is more complex than hypocrisy. And so Catholics have a right to be both angry and confused, sad and perplexed.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.