At home one morning, I learned the upsetting news that the late Jean Vanier had sexually abused six women.
As I picked up the The Globe and Mail on my veranda, I saw the headline. I thought surely it was another “Jean Vanier” being referred to. But alas, it was the “good” one — the philosopher I had come to admire for his compassionate view of the world and humanity.
The revelation of Vanier’s abuse came while I was teaching a course on forgiveness through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University. Even before the course began, I intended to teach Vanier. I’ve always thought that his understanding of forgiveness, which recognizes the “brokenness” of us all, was very significant, especially in our culture, where we have sadly become accustomed—as we see online daily—to expressing outrage against wrongdoers, without considering what pain or demons they were wrestling with that led them to do bad.
Would I still teach Vanier, I thought, given what had come to light? Doing so, wouldn’t I be not only insensitive to his victims but perhaps others in my class who had also been sexually violated?
What to do kept me up at night. On one hand, I didn’t want to deprive my students the opportunity to learn about Vanier’s insights on forgiveness and how these ideas could actually benefit their lives by making them more loving and less resentful. On the other hand, I, as others, felt betrayed that he had hid the abuse for decades. Teaching someone who had this personal effect on me would be difficult.
I decided that instead of talking about Vanier’s ideas in that formal, academic way that distances a thinker themselves from their ideas, the class should talk about what he did. This was not hard to do. Many of my students came to class troubled by the news and wanted to talk about it, as well as process it with others.
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Two truths emerged. First, we as a society tend to revere people whose work we admire. Because Vanier did so much to help humanity, notably through L’Arche—the international network of caring communities for those with disabilities—we allowed ourselves to see him as an ideal humanitarian, bypassing any thought about the brokenness that defines him just as much as it defines us.
As a society, we need to get better at not worshipping those who do great things. Worship blinds us to the other’s humanity and turns them into a false god. We do this with celebrities all the time and we did it, regrettably, with Vanier.
The other truth is that we can separate someone’s moral excellence from their ideas. Knowing that Vanier is not the exceptionally virtuous person we once thought doesn’t mean that the many insights he shared, mainly through an impressive body of books on how to treat one another, are no longer valid. That would be to confuse bad character with producing knowledge of the same kind.
In his seminal 1998 CBC Massey Lecture and book, Becoming Human, Vanier argues, “forgiveness is the process of removing barriers; it is the process by which we start to accept and to love those who have hurt us.” Perhaps it is too early for Vanier to be forgiven, not only by the women he abused, but the public he misled—through words and action—into believing he was a wholly compassionate person.
As a society, we need to get better at not worshipping those who do great things.
There is no obligation to forgive Vanier, but I ultimately hope he does receive forgiveness. Not doing so means maintaining those “barriers” he observes. We are thus likely to block ourselves from seeing him as the flawed but prescient person he was and view him only as a perpetrator. In such a state of non-forgiveness, we allow resentment to grow and fester in us. We owe not Vanier, but ourselves better.
Moreover, the current challenge is to occupy that difficult space where, on the one hand, we condemn Vanier’s abuse, while, on the other, do not fail to appreciate the exceptional good he has given the world. That is why I, for one thing, will continue to read and teach Vanier’s work. Its truth about our shared vulnerability and why it must always be respected as sacred is just as valid today as it was before the revelations of his abuse. What’s changed, however, is what we now know: he woefully failed to honour that truth. In some ways, his writing is a guide on how not to be like him.
So the decision by Novalis, a Catholic book publisher in Toronto, to stop selling several Vanier books and remove them from their marketing catalogue, troubles me. A publisher should commit to helping make knowledge available. The removal of Vanier’s books undermines that and in fact does not help condemn his abuse. It is important that we remember that his writings were never an invitation to harm but very much the opposite — to love, care and walk faithfully alongside others.
This is part of Vanier’s stained legacy that should not be discarded. True goodness never loses its value.
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