The venality of Vanier

Michael W Higgins, a biographer of Jean Vanier, investigates the legacy of a disgraced Catholic icon.

I remember the day clearly.  The phone call from Oslo took me by surprise.  It was the publisher of the Norwegian edition of my book Logician of the Heart and I was especially chuffed to be published in a Scandinavian language.  After all, Higgins, in Irish O hUiggín, means descendant of a Viking and I have always been much taken by this tenuous connection to the Norsemen. 

I wasn’t chuffed after the phone call. I was informed that my book was being pulped, extinguished, made a distant memory only.  Within a couple of days of receiving this desolating news I was told by Liturgical Press in Minnesota that they were doing likewise and that all catalogues listing the book were to be similarly purged.  To be twice pulped in one week struck me as more than bad timing.

You see, the logician of the title was Jean Vanier, the now disgraced spiritual genius whose fall from the heights of honour was traumatic for countless people.  The co-founder of L’Arche – a movement for the intellectually challenged – and a spiritual counsellor and writer for multitudes, an eminence with few equals in both the Catholic world and beyond with every possible dignity bestowed on him by pontiffs, prime ministers, presidents and monarchs, was discovered shortly after his death to have been in a series of relationships with women that were judged to be not only morally inappropriate but abusive.

His halo was expunged and it is no exaggeration to say that millions were disillusioned if not devastated.  For those of us who were Vanier biographers it was a grim time with the media. How could all of us have missed his sexually exploitative behaviour?  

Easy enough, when there is neither a public record nor a private correspondence to suggest such behaviour, when no one came forward with allegations until shortly before his death, and when an international investigation into the accusations of the five complainants was conducted entirely sub secreto, until, in other words, the damage surfaced into the light.

The bravery of these women is extraordinary given Vanier’s exalted status. But Vanier is only one of many spiritual and artistic luminaries in the last few years whose time of reckoning has come.  David Haas, the popular composer of liturgical music, is the subject of numerous civil suits for serial predation, has conceded that his behaviour with scores of young women was reprehensible, and has seen his music delisted by his publisher and banned from performance in numerous churches and dioceses.


And, now, the case of the Slovenian artist, mosaicist, and Jesuit spiritual director, Marko Rupnik has the Catholic universe in turmoil. Rupnik has been accused of the spiritual and sexual abuse of many women who belong to a religious body he is associated with called the Loyola Community.  The Society of Jesus has imposed penalties, and the Vatican has both excommunicated him and subsequently lifted the excommunication; the authorities have restricted his priestly activities, censured his behaviour in strong canonical terms, but in the end appear to have done all of this in a cloud of opacity.  

Numerous Catholic outlets, many of an obscurantist and anti-Pope Francis disposition like The Pillar, The National Catholic Register, and Catholic World Report, were quick in moving on the unfolding scandal of Rupnik’s behaviour, Rome’s perceived tardiness, and what many have judged to be cumbersome Jesuit media footwork.

Rupnik’s work – individual or through his artistic collective the Centro Aletti – is to be found all over the world, including in Portugal, Italy and the United States. In fact, the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Sacred Heart University has his artistically inventive rendering of the Harrowing of Hell that has generated wide admiration in both professional and devotional circles.

Like that other great Catholic artist, Eric Gill, whose masterfully conceived and executed sacred and secular sculptures are to be found throughout Great Britain, and whose incestuous and pedophiliac exploits shocked the world when revealed in 1989, appreciation of Rupnik’s art is now seriously compromised by his nefarious behaviour.

In the end, although this is not likely to be the end, it is possible to draw some conclusions about the Vanier, Haas and Rupnik scandals. Although it is understandable that a process of erasure and indictment has its psychological and political rationale, to decimate the legacy entirely does disproportionate damage.  To lose access to the writings of Vanier, in particular his seminal Becoming Human, is to compound the tragedy. A moral blitzkrieg has collateral pain.

What we have learned from all these instances is that the explosive combination of spiritual and erotic intimacy should be seen for what it is – manipulative predation – rather than how it is rationalized by the moral culprits as a special innocence, an entitled relationship. The deep pathology that runs through centuries of Catholic teaching on sexuality – a pathology marked by a deep fear of sexual pleasure with its body-versus-spirit dualism – needs to be recognised for its destructive potential. And the aftershocks of patriarchy reverberate throughout all of society.  It’s time for a new and healthier anthropology.


And indeed, to return to the case of Jean Vanier, we see the consequences of a disordered anthropology and an ossified spirituality that cause, when the conditions align, great damage to all the players involved. This appears to be the case as chronicled and analyzed in the recent January 30 release of an investigative report commissioned by  L’Arche International and more than 2 years in the making. It is monstrous in size and in content.

The full report of L’Arche International’s Abuse and Hold: An Investigation of Thomas Philippe, Jean Vanier and L’Arche is some 900 pages, but even the detailed synthesis and conclusion are weighty enough in their own right to call for concentrated attention by any reader.

What we find in these distillations and executive summary is a  detailed examination of the roots of a spiritual and psychological pathology that has shaken multitudes. After all, an organisation given over to the care and flourishing of the intellectually disabled that has been a model to the world, and a Canadian icon whose lineal pedigree and universal acclaim as a great humanitarian are without parallel, are now once again in  the limelight of media scrutiny.


Shortly after the death of Vanier in 2019 various testimonies by women claiming to have been abused by him surfaced and  L’Arche International, keen on getting ahead of the narrative, released the information and pledged to mandate a commission to undertake an exhaustive review of the origins of L’Arche, and the role of the two co-founders, demonstrating full transparency, rigorous scholarship, and untrammelled freedom to explore and dig into the deepest caverns of the organisation’s history and the two men who started it all.

It is a no-holds-barred investigation; the stakes are high; the integrity of L’Arche itself could be compromised. The Commission’s writers and consultants included theologians, psychiatric and psychoanalytic experts, historians, and social scientists.   Their only investment:  the truth.

Unearthing the truth in a history layered with myth, prevarication, twisted theology, and emotional dysfunction – to say nothing of the vulnerability of the dozens preyed upon for a sexual gratification clothed in sanctimony – is no easy feat.  The ministry and legacy of L’Arche must be disengaged from the corrupting vision and spiritual fraudulence of the two men at the core of its origin story.

Thomas Philippe was Jean Vanier’s “spiritual father.”  His peculiar blend of Marian theology and mysticism was an esoteric system of spiritual direction that insisted on erotic intimacy between the spiritual father and the one trusting his confidence.  It was a strategy of seduction couched in mystical language.

Philippe was a delusional Dominican friar who had repeatedly run afoul of his brother Dominicans as well as the Vatican who had been investigated by the Holy Office of the Inquisition and whose teachings and behaviour were formally condemned in 1956. The Vatican employed several psychiatric assessments in order to determine the nature of Philippe’s “perceived illness”. 


But the Vatican sanctions were ineffectual.  And this in spite of the seriousness of his dangerous ideas. Ideas that spoke of his spiritual-carnal awakening in 1938 when he wrote about a mystic union with the Blessed Virgin Mary in the chapel of Trinita-dei-Monti in Rome: “I was caught in my whole body, all night, in recollection and very intimate union with Her. It was like knowing Mary anew.”  In one sense, this is rather conventional piety invoking mystical discourse to speak of a deepening spiritual relationship with the mother of Jesus.  

But Philippe goes much further.  The “very obscure graces” he receives legitimate his erotic urges.  His sexual organs become means of initiating nuns and young lay women into his mystico-sexual practices, points of entrée into the very relationship itself of Jesus with Mary.  This is the stuff of blasphemy, and no less a French intellectual luminary than Jacques Maritain wrote in his diary that “To my mind, Fr. Thomas is mad.  

Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe knows that fact and says that his brother is a saint, everything is O.K.  Another madman.  The devil is raging in this incredible affair. . . .For me this is an extraordinary case of schizophrenia—too rich a wine [a sincere craving for sanctity, etc.] in a double-bottomed goatskin, the rot of which had made the wine turn into perversion.”

What Vanier knew that Maritain did not know was that the cabal of initiates gathered around Thomas Philippe, including his brother, Marie-Dominique, and his sister, the Prioress Mother Cécile, were as adept at sexual predation as the spiritual master himself.  

His sister was a grooming enabler, the Ghislaine Maxwell of this sordid drama.  The rot was very extensive, insidious, encased in secrecy, ruthless in nurturing a culture hidden in full sight.  And Vanier was fully onside. He said of Philippe that he “loved me and accepted me the way I was. It was liberating for me. It is wonderful to be seen, to be recognized as a person who has a destiny and a mission.”  That destiny and mission were in great measure defined by Philippe.


As the L’Arche Report notes: “Philippe was convinced he was announcing a new age for the Church.  His message was too innovative to be understood. . . .This attracted hostility, and, in his view, the disgrace of being considered mentally ill.”  The Vatican condemnation also sealed the loyalty of Philippe’s followers and ensured that at some point he would resurface in a new capacity drawing on his special spiritual gifts.

And he would resurface in 1964 with the founding of the first L’Arche home in Trosly, France, his return from the wilderness of exile facilitated by Jean Vanier himself thus allowing Philippe  to continue unhindered his predatory behaviour, building a network held together by the notion that the initiates, the tout-petits or little ones, were “chosen” to be the recipients of his “mystic graces,” united with Mary and her Son freed from the constraints of reason and the conventions of Christian morality.

The Philippe cult and its “dive into divine love” was an aberration of Catholic mysticism, a Gnostic sect with its own code, its antinomian thrust, its mesmerising leaders holding in their thrall the young, the impressionable, and  the vulnerable making the case that they are chosen, special in this new world of spiritual freedom wherein the erotic is divinized. 

Both Philippe and Vanier drew on their self-invoked privileged relationship with the divine to channel their lust as they perfected their seductions in sacral terms: “It’s not us, it’s Mary and Jesus,” and “Jesus and I are not two, we are one. . .and it is Jesus who loves you through me.” The genitals are described as a “sacrament of love”. There is the stench of Rasputin about this.

Rome was blindsided.  Although Cardinal Paul Philippe (no relation) tried his best to monitor the sect or cult built around Thomas Philippe in the early years, the careful screening or veil that Philippe and Vanier ensured would be in place meant that effective supervision was limited.  As was customary at the time, the Vatican conducted its investigations sub secreto and so knowledge of Philippe’s spiritual modus operandi was limited to few. The Dominican Order itself was negligent in exercising its authority and now there are formal investigations of the Order’s own failures, initiated by the Order itself.


The L’Arche Report’s investigators note that “the narcissistic perverse nucleus within the Catholic Church” epitomized by Thomas Philippe and Jean Vanier has spread to other spiritual or ecclesial communities, including many that are now being vigorously reformed or suppressed by Pope Francis.

The theologians on the L’Arche Commission actually raise the point that Vanier’s spirituality is distinctly his own with few areas of meaningful incorporation in the life of the institutional Catholic Church, deploying his eccentric anthropology, unconventional reading of scripture, and exaltation of the heart over reason in opposition to the hierarchy that declined to ordain him a priest.

They write: “Jean Vanier’s mystical discourse proves to be elusive, disjointed and not very credible on both the rational and theological level.”  But it cannot be gainsaid that his profile pre-fall was extraordinary, a living saint in our time, admired by multitudes irrespective their faith, the darling of monarchs, pontiffs, presidents and prime ministers.


And now that reputation is in tatters and the dysfunctional Philippe siblings permanently disgraced. L’Arche, however, will endure, in no small part because it did with its Report what Harvard historian Jill Lepore speaking of the recently released January 6th Committee Report on the siege of the Capitol noted that “for all its weight and consequence, [it] never asks why anyone believed Donald Trump.”  The L’Arche Report does ask why one would believe Thomas Philippe and Jean Vanier and tries with integrity to make sense of the consequences.

It is important to recognize those occasions when the church and bodies like L’Arche with a strong Catholic genesis and orientation, that when they get it right we should salute them.  With the Vatican’s McCarrick Report—a detailed and hitherto unprecedented examination of the conditions, charges and politics behind Cardinal Ted McCarrick’s pattern of serial predation and episcopal politicking and chicanery – and the L’Arche Report we have inspiring examples of a ruthlessly honest inquiry, a model for secular structures and institutions that rely on legal evasion, spin doctoring, and  political legerdemain, to prevent uncomfortable truths from becoming public. 

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