‘Say It Ain’t So, Jean’*

*NB: This title is inspired by the saying ‘Say It ain’t So, Joe’, the title of a story written by Charley Owens in response to the accusations against ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson, who, it was claimed, conspired with other members of the Chicago White Sox to commit intentional errors in the 1920 World Series so that the Philadelphia Athletics could emerge victorious (retrieved from “Black SoxTrial:1921”, found in the Law Library – American Law and Legal Information [online], retrieved 26 February 2020 from https://law.jrank.org/pages/2831/-Black-Sox-Trial-1921–Say-Ain-t-So-Joe.html).

It seems as though none of those we uphold as spiritual leaders and inspirations are above suspicion.

It is now public knowledge that the founder of the L’Arche / Faith and Light movements, Jean Vanier, engaged in what can be termed, at best, as manipulative sexual relationships with six women, both lay and members of religious orders, between 1975 and 1990[1]. This has rocked the religious world in general and the Catholic world in particular. I myself am still trying to process this, even weeks after the evidence has emerged. I’ve read his books, I’ve listened to him speak, both in person and in the media, and I even tried for a few years to work as a support worker for persons with intellectual disabilities. I concluded that I don’t have the gifts necessary for that work, so I’m not doing it anymore.

Nonetheless, I have great admiration for those who are able to do this work, and Jean Vanier has been the ultimate model of such a person – that is, until these recent revelations. If there is anything we can take hold of for hope, it is the fact that L’Arche International itself appears to have been unflinching in its willingness to have the allegations which were placed before them investigated, and has declared its solidarity with the women who have been victimized by Vanier. They have also made it clear, and correctly so, that the L’Arche movement and everything it stands for is greater than the sins of one person.[2]

However, that person is its founder. That founder, it is now clear, fell under the sway of a morally corrupt Dominican priest, Pere Thomas Phillippe, who appeared to give permission to Jean Vanier to use spiritual direction/accompaniment to find sexual gratification. They worked on continuing their relationship, as mentor and mentee, even during the time of Pere Thomas’ period of suspension from priestly ministry and spiritual direction, even when the Holy Office and the Dominican Order were cautioning about the discipline to which Pere Thomas had been subject[3]. These two men, a spiritual father and son, so to speak, are at the foundation of the L’Arche communities and the Faith and Light movement, like it or not.

In spite of all this, I can still say that I find the basic theological, pastoral, and social insights into the human condition offered by Jean Vanier, the same insights which underpin the foundational principles of L’Arche, are sound.

And yet…he refers to Pere Thomas Philippe, his mentor, and I cringe.[4]

That undercurrent, which we’re now all too aware of now, flows beneath all those praiseworthy sentiments, and threatens to sweep them all away. What we know now of Jean Vanier’s actions, having been given spiritual cover by the one who claimed the title of ‘mentor’, endangers the movement which he started. Have the L’Arche / Faith and Light movements been built on foundations of sand, which will be swept away by the shocking events which have come to light? This possibility is even more likely if more revelations of coercion / manipulation / abuse occur. L’Arche is rightly concerned about what effect the reactions to these events will have on the support for their organization, including financial support.

And yet…the underlying messages of dignity for all people; of moving from exclusion to inclusion, to being in true communion with others, especially those who do not have the wealth, resources, or abilities that the majority of society has; surely these are worth something, are they not, regardless of the sins of those who uttered them?

This is an issue which goes back to the earliest stages of the Christian church. After Christianity became a legal, and then the imperial, religion of the Roman Empire, a controversy arose around the consecration of a bishop, Caecilian of Carthage. Apparently, one of the bishops who consecrated Caecilian was identified as a ‘traditor’, who had basically capitulated to the civil authorities. As a result of the synod and theological work surrounding this case, we have the principle of ‘ex opera operato’, that the grace conferred through the celebration of a sacrament is legitimate by the correct form of the ritual and the intention of those to celebrate the sacrament (this is a thumbnail sketch, and I know Catholic theological explanations are much more complex than this)[5]. This might be a principle which we can draw some comfort from.

Knowing that doesn’t provide much comfort, does it? If we’re honest with ourselves, we can find our fair share of examples concerning the ‘great figures’ of our time whose personal exploits were questionable. Mohandas Ghandi had some very strange practices concerning sexuality, including having nude women lie with him so that he could confirm his commitment to celibacy[6]. John F Kennedy, a President greatly concerned with pursuing peace and social justice in his political career, had a very active sexual life outside of his marriage[7]. And it is now known that Martin Luther King Jr, the leader of the 1960s civil rights movement in the US, had engaged in some form of academic dishonesty in his doctoral thesis, and had marital affairs during his life[8].

Aw, hell, whom am I kidding? We’re all angry, hurt, confused, worried, and we don’t know what to do with all our feelings. Some of us may be wondering if we should be trusting anyone who might be held up as ‘exemplary’, for fear of the skeletons which may be hiding in their closet(s). However, before we give in to our disillusionment, we must demonstrate our willingness to act responsibly. We who are in positions of pastoral leadership and responsibility, ordered and lay, men especially so, need to check ourselves. We need to be doubly aware, infinitesimally aware, of the vulnerable parts of our psyches which could lead us into inappropriate conduct. We need to find trusted friends with whom we can exercise mutual responsibility. If we need to, we need to get professional help. Those responsibilities lies with us, and we need to take the initiative on them.

In the meantime, the only resource that will truly help us with this trauma is time. With time, we may be more able to understand Jean Vanier’s brokenness, his relationship with Pere Thomas Philippe, and come to terms with the fact that Jean used his position of authority inappropriately to deal with his brokenness. It’s too early to talk about forgiveness, and some may never be able to get to that space – and that is the way it needs to be. It’s no good for us to stay in shock and plead, ‘Say it ain’t so’. It is so. Hopefully, we will eventually be able to come to some kind of understanding of, while never being at peace with, both the good work and the goodness of Jean Vanier, and of the evil that he perpetuated. Let’s pray that someday, our primary focus will only be secondarily on him, while focusing primarily on the ministry he began, of being in community with those who have developmental disabilities.

[1] The results of their investigation are summarized in in L’Arche International (2020, 22 February), ‘Summary Report from L’Arche International’, retrieved 26 February 2020 from https://www.larche.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=139bf786-3bbc-45f5-882a-9f78bfbc99e9 (NB – this report will be available from the L’Arche International itself as well as many of the national and regional chapters of L’arche)).

[2] This can be seen in the statement issued by the leaders of L’Arche International in the wake of the report and the evidence it uncovered (Posner, S, and Cates-Carney, S, ‘To all members of L’Arche communities throughout the world’ (2020, February, L’Arche International [online], retrieved 26 February 2020 at https://www.larche.org/documents/10181/2539004/Letter-Federation_International-Leaders_2020-02-22_EN.pdf/20d33d55-72e0-4c51-8703-8ab6f0adb9b5)).

[3] See the letter by Fonatine, P, and Glass, E, addressed 2015, 15 March, available at the L’Arche International website: https://www.larche.org/documents/10181/1126084/2015_03_20_Letter_Pere_Thomas-PAF-EGS-EN.pdf/6274fdee-c3a4-48aa-8134-e7a92d840f35 (accessed 26 February 2020), and the documentary Religieuses abusées, l’autre scandale de l’église partie 1 (Abused Nuns, the Other Scandal of the Church, Part 1), a production of Arte France, aired on LCP (La Chaine Parlimentaire, L’Assemblie Nationale – The Parliamentary Channel, National Assembly (France)) 5 March 2019; accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YIO85YJgCA8 on 23 March 2020.

[4] All of this can be evidenced during the 1979 Massey Lectures delivered by Jean Vanier, entitled Becoming Human; originally broadcast on Ideas (CBC Radio One) November 1998; retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-1998-cbc-massey-lectures-becoming-human-1.2946860 on 28 February 2020.

[5] My thumbnail sketch comes from Saunders, W P (2020) If a priest is in the state of mortal sin, can he still offer the Mass and perform the other sacraments? In Catholic Straight Answers [online]; accessed from https://catholicstraightanswers.com/if-a-priest-is-in-the-state-of-mortal-sin-can-he-still-offer-the-mass-and-perform-the-other-sacraments/ 28 February 2020.

[6] See Jack, I (2018, 1 October) How would Gandhi’s celibacy tests with naked women be seen today? In The Guardian [online]. Accessed from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/oct/01/gandhi-celibacy-test-naked-women on 23 March 2020.

[7] See Sabato, L (2013, 16 October) John F. Kennedy’s Final Days Reveal A Man Who Craved Excitement. In Forbes [online]. Accessed from https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2013/10/16/john-f-kennedys-final-days-reveal-a-man-who-craved-excitement/#36c9ba6c71a9 on 23 March 2020.

[8] The latest controversies on these issues can be seen in Greenberg, D (2019, June 4), How to Make Sense of the Shocking New MLK Documents. In Politico [online]. Accessed from https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/06/04/how-to-make-sense-of-the-shocking-new-mlk-documents-227042 on 23 March 2020.


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