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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.