Violence and Vanier

There’s a very good article in the latest edition of Modern Theology by Isaac Samuel Villegas on ‘The Ecclesial Ethics of John Howard Yoder’s Abuse’. In the piece, Villegas makes the case that Yoder’s theological work cannot be separated from his personal conduct. He demonstrates that Yoder’s thinking about ecclesial ethics -particularly ‘binding and loosing’- was a justification for his own abusive relationships with women, which he presented (to himself and to the women) in terms of moral and spiritual experimentation.

The Mennonite Church has had a decade to come to terms with the truth about Yoder’s behaviour, and wrestle with his theological legacy. Over the coming years, the Catholic Church needs to do the same with Jean Vanier. As with the abuse crisis more widely, Vanier’s abusive behaviour does not need to be set aside as an aberration, and his work quietly shuffled to one side. We need to ask about the relationship between his behaviour and his thought, and we need to ask about relationship between his behaviour and the wider ecclesial pathologies that were implicated in it.

In recent weeks, I’ve returned to Marie Keenan’s excellent book, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church. Keenan’s work with clerical perpetrators of abuse is both unflinching and compassionate and, for this reason, very illuminating. One point in particular stays with me, which I’ll simplify here for brevity. It’s about how priests negotiate, healthily or unhealthily, the natural human desire for emotional and physical intimacy. For clergy who abuse, part of the problem is poor human formation and stunted psychosexual development, and the inability to negotiate those normal needs as an adult with adults. But it’s also a question of power. Perhaps counterintuitively, clergy who abuse are less likely to be rule-breakers: on the contrary, they are more likely to be passive and obedient in relation to Church authority, to be scrupulous about rule-keeping (and focused on rules rather than on relationships), to aspire for perfection and to conceal failure. Their lives become split between a perfect public persona, and an unhappy and ashamed private persona. Such clergy struggle to acknowledge their genuine needs, because this would bring them into conflict both with their ideals (of priesthood, chastity, obedience) and with the institution of the Church. In some cases, the result is a catastrophic failure of boundaries and the occurrence of abuse, which is then privatised (because these needs cannot be publicly negotiated vis à vis Church or vis à vis others), and rationalised, as being a legitimate expression of needs they cannot get met elsewhere. Abuse is also minimalised and legalised, with a focus on what sexual acts were or were not done, and what boundaries were and were not crossed. As Keenan puts it, there is a paradox of power and powerlessness here: abuse is, in part, an act of rebellion resulting from an experience of powerlessness in the face of one’s own needs, and in the face of the institution, but clerical power is part of the picture too. 

Sometimes, and in Yoder’s and Vanier’s case, the abuse is also spiritualised, which is to say placed in a framework which allowed the abuser present these abusive actions to himself in the terms of the system he valued, and which gave value to him as a spiritual leader. John Howard Yoder framed his abuse, to himself and the women he abused, in terms of being in the vanguard of moral experimentation and a new kind of freedom. He shamed women who rejected him by telling them they were not sophisticated or intelligent enough to understand what he was doing. For Vanier, abuse was practically and symbolically enabled by the context of spiritual direction, and framed in terms of mystical graces. He, Vanier, was kept in the position of power, as spiritual leader, and recipient and dispenser of these “graces”. 

This kind of abuse is not about perversion. It is about a genuine need for closeness and pleasure distorted by power, both male and clerical (which I use here to mean religious leadership, rather than narrowly in the sense of ordained – Vanier was not ordained). It is about men who pursued these human needs in a way that was distorted by power, because they were unable to really appear with those needs and vulnerabilities in a situation of equality, which is always a space of negotiation and potential rejection. Reading the L’Arche report into Vanier’s abuse, and some of the reporting on it in the days that followed, I found myself questioning whether Vanier had believed his own spiritualising of the abuse, and genuinely did not believe he had done something wrong, or whether -as some journalists suggested- he had deliberately and cynically employed spiritual language to groom and then abuse women. I don’t think this is a straight either/or: the problem is power and denial, and a structural situation in which Vanier (and abusing clergy who are invested in the ideal of what Keenan calls ‘perfect clerical celibacy’ in unhealthy ways), are simultaneously in a situation of denying their basic needs in order to conform, deeply invested in denying that they are doing so, and able to exert power over others.

This problem is not addressed by dismissing people like Jean Vanier, or clergy who abuse, as aberrations or perversions. It is addressed by transforming the structural and cultural violence that underpins the direct violence of abuse –and I’ll write more on the structural/cultural/direct violence framework in an upcoming blog.

Over the coming years, Catholic scholars will need to do for Vanier’s work and spiritual legacy what Villegas and others have done for Yoder’s work. That’s beyond the scope of this blog, but here is one thought. Vanier talked a lot about vulnerability, and the fundamental question that all human beings want answering, and on some level fear being answered: ‘Do you love me? Do you love me as I am?’ Perhaps Vanier’s desire to be in the company of people whose disabilities enabled them to wear their vulnerability and desire for affection on the outside, and to articulate unreflectingly their needs and desires, was his best instinct. In the disabled members of L’Arche, as he said, he had identified those who could be his best teachers and healers. Perhaps, on some level, he knew his own wound. He pursued his deepest needs for emotional and physical intimacy in ways that were abusive, self-serving and dominating, instead of the genuinely mutual, vulnerable, and transformative way that he found so attractive.


Marie Keenan, Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organizational Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Summary Report from L’Arche International: (February 22, 2020)

Isaac Samuel Villegas, ‘The Ecclesial Ethics of John Howard Yoder’s Abuse’, Modern Theology 0:0 2020, 1–22.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: