A look inside

Jean Vanier is the latest Catholic hero to go down. No sooner had we begun to name schools after him, but an internal investigation revealed an “inconvenient truth.” Not all of his relations with young attractive female volunteers had been chaste. Nor was he just slipping.

The grisly details may be found on the Internet. I have made no effort to examine the charge-sheet, case by case, though I can see it looks bad enough. Not McCarrick class (Vanier seems to have molested only technically adult women), but darkly hypocritical all the same. I seem to have misplaced my enthusiasm for smut, as part of my retreat from hack journalism, or I would provide more details.

Our hero came from a good family. (His father was Canada’s last plausibly viceregal governor-general, if that means anything to anyone anymore.) The institution founded by his son, L’Arche, with the play on his mother’s maiden surname, did commendable works for those with “developmental disabilities,” by all accounts I’ve heard: hundreds of outlets in dozens of countries. Jean Vanier was also internationally respected as a philosopher and theologian: some thirty books. I’ve never read one, so must pretend to have no opinion.

He was a repository for trust and adulation. He cultivated a “look” which I would describe as aggressively benign. He played the saint in public, well: he was a master of publicity. Owing, no doubt, to my personal nastiness, I was suspicious of him all along.

When a Catholic in his position systematically avoids such an unpleasant topic as abortion, and speaks of everything else with a cloying niceness, my suspicions are aroused. Though I kept my views politely to myself, it was only because he was none of my business, and I’ve seldom had a need for more enemies. He didn’t seem to have any, however.

“If the biographers of the saints would write of their defects as well as of their virtues, their biographies would be longer.”┬áSo said Saint Alphonsus Liguori to one of his novices.

Another of his nuggets, from Naples a quarter millennium ago, was, “Everybody has defects of character. I have more than others.” It was a pre-modern boast.

What they were I am unable to ascertain; even a modern Irish biographer finds only tepid ones. But God would find more. Too, let it be said, that one makes one’s confession to Him, not to the rabble.

But the irritation, with the late Jean Vanier, is that he kept his “little foible” up for too many decades. Moreover, and more damning, I gather he had developed a theological patter as part of his seduction routine.

Good taste, if nothing else, requires the sinner not to make godly claims. This is, arguably, the worst feature of sexual and all other exploitation. It is cruelty, of a vicious kind, for when the victim is abandoned he or she will be alienated not only from the figure of authority, but also from the God for whom he presumed to speak. Terrible harm is done to a soul who was trusting.

Terrible things happen: we must be “comfortable” with that. We cannot know to what depths of depravity another human is capable of sinking — it is always lower than we surmised. Yet we can know, with assurance, exactly what we have ourselves done, or intended; and we ought to know that forgiveness can come only from the Witness of all our crimes. For He is also the ultimate Victim.

A man like Vanier now serves as a dire warning. You think you are a nice guy? You’re not.