Jean Vanier’s Sins Are His Own

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According to a report released by L’Arche International, Jean Vanier, the Catholic Canadian founder of a network of communities for intellectually disabled individuals, sexually abused at least six women. This news comes as both a disappointment and a shock to all those who regarded Vanier as a man of exemplary virtue.

“I was horrified,” writes Dorothy Cummings McLean for LifeSiteNews, “by revelations that its founder, the late Vanier, has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct by six women.” Discretion requires that we not go any further into what the report has revealed. Added to this unhappy revelation, however, is a bizarre criticism of the Catholic Church, as if it were as much to blame for Vanier’s lurid behavior as he was.

In an opinion piece for Canada’s Globe and Mail, Professor Michael W. Higgins (who calls himself a Catholic) stated the following in response to the Vanier revelations: “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 recognized for its destructive potential. And the aftershocks of patriarchy reverberate throughout all of society. It’s time for a new and healthier anthropology.”

The Church, however, cannot be held responsible for the view that sexual pleasure is a fearful thing. She has consistently taught the very opposite. Dualism, the split between mind and body, has also been firmly and repeatedly opposed by the Church. Inexplicably, for a Catholic, Professor Higgins is confusing Church teachings that the Church has consistently affirmed with heresies that She has consistently repudiated. And what he means by a “healthier anthropology” is a velleity without substance. If Saint John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility does not constitute a healthy anthropology, it’s hard to believe that whatever Professor Higgins has in mind does.

In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas refers to the opinion of “ancient philosophers” that “all pleasure is evil.” “But they were wrong,” he states rather matter-of-factly, “since none can live without some sensible and bodily pleasure.” Throughout history, the Church has vehemently and consistently denounced various heresies such as Albigensianism, Manichaeism, and Jansenism for holding that pleasure, and especially in the sexual embrace, is illicit.

In the Old Testament, sexual pleasure within marriage is strongly affirmed, even to what might be a slightly embarrassing level. The opening of the Song of Songs reads, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for thy love is better than wine.” The Book of Ruth tells of a most “beautiful” and “delicate” love shared between Ruth and her husband, Boaz. On the other hand, the Bible describes the purity of Joseph, who rejected the propositions of the married Egyptian woman who had bought him as a slave.

In his book, Love and Control, Cardinal Suenens explains that seeking pleasure for its own sake, quite apart from love, “means contemning man’s real dignity by destroying the unity of the human composite. There is nothing unworthy in the physical act of love itself, but it becomes unworthy as soon as it loses its spiritual dynamism, and its true meaning and reason for existence.” Likewise, in Love, Marriage, and the Catholic Conscience, Dietrich von Hildebrand states that married love “is above all fully human, a compound of sense and spirit.”

Concerning the charge of dualism, Saint Paul VI could not have rejected it more clearly and forcefully than in his encyclical Humanae Vitae. He speaks of “the inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are the fundamental nature of the marriage act.” It’s contraception that brings about dualism, not chastity.

It doesn’t require much perception to notice that sex has run amok in the secular world, where the dualistic separation of pleasure from love is pandemic. Paul VI had correctly predicted that contraception would bring about, among other things, a lack of “the reverence due to a woman… and reduce her to a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.” Is it a stretch of the imagination to surmise that the world, and not the Church, played a larger role in Vanier’s activities?

To suggest, even remotely, that the Church shared in the indiscretions of Jean Vanier betrays an extraordinary level of ignorance, both of Church history as well as human nature. It is reminiscent of former talk show host, Phil Donahue (also a “Catholic”), who claimed that the Church should compensate all Catholic couples who get divorced. One of the problems in contemporary society, as noted by O. Hobart Mowrer in his book, The Crisis in Psychiatry and Religion, is the reluctance or unwillingness on the part of so many people to acknowledge their own complicity in wrongdoing. As the song states, “Everything I do that’s wrong is someone else’s fault.” Confession is the answer for sin, not denial.

There are personal tragedies. Then there are tragedies of an intellectual nature. To misrepresent Church teaching so as to blame the Church for the very heresies She has denounced, is both outrageous and inexcusable. Furthermore, it is scandalous for people who are forming their opinion of the Church on the basis of a “liberal” newspaper accommodating a “liberal” thinker. Here, orthodoxy becomes heresy, authenticity becomes mendacity, and the teacher becomes the imposter. It should not be heretical to state that following the Church’s teaching on sexuality is more reliable than following what the world teaches.

Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images

Donald DeMarco

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Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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