Understanding Jean Vanier

Not all addictions are created equal. And their inequality can be highly contextual. For instance, if my bank was doing some hiring and the two best candidates for one position had addictions – one to gambling and the other to sex – I would favour the sex addict because, where my banking is concerned, I don’t want someone with gambling debts fiddling with my finances.

Moreover, I think we tend to condemn addictions that harm others (e.g., manipulative, non-consensual sex, and gambling that puts the while family in jeopardy) far more than those that harm only the addict (as in You dummy, if you didn’t gamble so much, you could afford your next month’s rent!).

As we learned from L’Arche International in early 2020, Jean Vanier knew himself to be an addict who harmed others. It was revealed that he not only had a compulsive need for sexual relations but that he acted out this addiction in a manipulative manner. He compounded this by lying about it to others, even to his difficult final days. Here in Canada, when CBC interviewer Carol Off asked “Aren’t you ever lonely?”, Vanier replied in a manner that concealed his sexual activities. Given Vanier’s important books about being human and finding hope, these revelations about his actions were shocking.

Generally the reaction in the months following this revelation was along the lines of ‘How could the founder of l’Arche descend into this?’ It was as if the sequence in our knowledge – we knew about l’Arche and Vanier’s writings for a long time, but much later we learned of the sexual issue – was also a sequence in the events: first came l’Arche, then later came the evil.

My reaction was to wonder about the opposite sequence: how could someone with this terrible fault create l’Arche? First came the evil, and while it continued, l’Arche was born.

I arrived at this perspective upon learning that Vanier’s attachment to Père Philippe began in very young adulthood and he could not bear to end it. (Early in his career, Père Philippe was identified as a dangerous force for his ideas and actions concerning sexual activities connected with spiritual counseling. He held that seducing women was integral to helping them along a spiritual path. Something like that.)

Further, Vanier wrote constantly about brokenness. This is not a standard trope. So I wonder if this insight arose from within himself, and if the prominence of brokenness in his writing and spiritual guidance made him feel better. The stance that ‘everyone is broken, not just me’ would have eased his conscience somewhat.

This leads me to believe that Vanier was aware of his addiction and knew it was sinful. But addictions are addictions; he could not stop. So what did he do? Penance. He undertook a life of service to disadvantaged people, which is no picnic. It isn’t like the life of a successful academic, a career which was one of Vanier’s prospects.

I see l’Arche as Vanier’s act of contrition that lasted more than half a century. Does that wash away the evil he did to his victims? Answering that question is above my pay scale; as Pope Francis once remarked, “Who am I to judge?” Rather, I want to think about the good Vanier did and his memorable writings. The beauty and validity of l’Arche are not compromised by Vanier’s faults.

Robert Czerny lives in Ottawa and southwest Nova Scotia. Two main interests are ethics in Canada and Catholic social teaching and action.

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10 Comments
  • Michael Coutts
    Posted at 08:20h, 17 May Reply

    Thank God, Vanier will experience the mercy of God and not our judgment.

  • Charles Pottie-Pâté
    Posted at 09:11h, 17 May Reply

    Thank you Bob, for this insightful article. The good that he did by creating L’Arche and making the world aware of the mentally challenged/handicapp persons in our world and their struggles continues.

  • Dodzi Amemado
    Posted at 13:09h, 17 May Reply

    Thank you, Rob. Very insightful.

  • Caroline Maloney
    Posted at 14:12h, 17 May Reply

    Thank You! So insightful, Robert Czerny, in attempting to understand such a “big”complex personality with a “sexual addiction” that he managed to hide for so long.

  • Adelaide MaDonald
    Posted at 14:50h, 17 May Reply

    I disagree with two of your hypothesis, that his affliction was an addiction and that he founded L’Arche as a penance.

    His affliction was more akin to a pedophile. Many addicts go for help, Pedophiles rarely do. As a penance, Jean Vanier could have sought help through establishing a ring of supporters around him to hold him to regular reporting to them of his urges and accountabilility to himself and to them, like the Mennonites have done for willing pedophiles. Or he might have taken medication to reduce his sex drive, again as some pedophiles do. His affliction was much stronger and more compulsive than an addiction.

    In some instances we can judge. I think he likely established L’Arche out of good intentions. But to think that he wanted to do penance is a stretch I think.

  • Eric Jensen
    Posted at 15:58h, 17 May Reply

    I prefer to wait for a definitive biography.

  • Kathy Stewart
    Posted at 16:10h, 18 May Reply

    Kathy Stewart, There is a difference between teaching forgiveness and allowing illegal and harmful behavior. I personally enjoyed his writings and admired his work untill information about his action were let out. The Church needs to understand the difference between hiding such behavior and teaching about forgiveness for one’s actions and choices. As a Catholic and a licensed Rn and licensed Social worker one is taught to report the facts to the legal authorities both orally and in writing. The Legal part of governments have the responsibility to act on this information. THE Church has the responsibility to teach and help the victims deal with the horrendous damaged done to them or by them. It is very non judgemental. Sinner’s sin and there is a legal respondability and religious hace a responsibility to act teaching forgiveness and not hide such behavior.

  • Peter LeBlanc
    Posted at 23:33h, 18 May Reply

    Robert, you entitled your piece “Understanding Jean Vanier”. However, after reading it through many times I am left with the question: does it really help me understand him any better? You may have known him in greater personal depth than I did, but the historical points you bring forth are already in the public domain. So, as with many other public figures who have left us, any conclusions we draw beyond his known legacy must remain conjecture even though curiosity might lead us to speculate about many other aspects of his life. The same is true for almost all those listed in the traditional Christian hagiography. The fact that there are still many people alive who knew Jean Vanier does not materially alter the fact that our attempts to penetrate his soul are mostly guesswork.
    Peter LeBlanc

  • Max Oliva
    Posted at 22:50h, 19 May Reply

    A very insightful article. Thank you, Bob.

  • Peter Bisson
    Posted at 10:52h, 20 May Reply

    Thank you Bob!

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