Another infernal betrayal: The sad case of Jean Vanier

The poets Dante and Virgil tour hell in this depiction from Dante Alighieri’s “Inferno,” which remains history's most-cited interpretation of the punishment of sinners in hell. (Sailko | Wikimedia Commons | CC-BY-3.0)

Dante Alighieri’s "Inferno" is still hell’s bestseller. A masterpiece of medieval poetry and theology since it was published seven centuries ago, the "Inferno" traces the author’s imagined trip through the levels of hell, recording the sinners he finds there and their punishments.

As a student, I found the theology less compelling than the ingenious tortures involving entrails and muck, fire and ice, for a variety of miscreants, including popes. Dante even consigned his archrival, Pope Boniface VIII, to hell before his actual death, placing him in the pit of simoniacs, those who had betrayed the Church by profiteering from their position and office.

Since 2002, it feels as if we need some new Dante to draft punishments for all those who have betrayed the Church: Those who have betrayed the trust of the children, young adults and seminarians in their care. Those who failed in their responsibilities to protect the weak and defenseless from predators.

Like Dante, our outrage at the sins so often wreaked by the powerful and the greedy upon the powerless can fuel a righteous anger against those who used positions of trust and authority to live extravagantly, to force themselves on others, to manipulate and coerce for the sake of power and influence.

The Lord knows that there are many others, from movie moguls to politicians, corporate heads to crime lords, who we might want to consign to our modern inferno. We do not seem to lack examples of villainy and corruption.

Yet, as perhaps Dante also felt, we perceive the betrayal of those who are our co-religionists to be the most treasonous.

Real life is not so simple as a poet’s fantasy, however, and it is not easy to separate the entwined threads of good and evil in individual biographies. Which brings me to the sad, terrible case of Jean Vanier. A layman who died in 2019 at 90 years of age, Vanier had been heralded as a living saint for his founding of the L’Arche communities.

It was his inspiration to provide Christian homes of care and community for the intellectually disabled. Vanier saw Christ in those who were so often rejected by everyone else, and he created a movement that continues to bear witness to the Gospel and exemplify the Christian commitment to the common good.

It was this same Jean Vanier, we have now found out, who manipulated young women (not disabled) under the guise of spiritual direction, using blasphemous analogies to justify his sexual predations. He lied to protect himself and his equally predatory mentor. And he took his lies to the grave.

It is one thing to have a movie mogul revealed as a rapacious troll. It is quite another to have someone we thought of as saintly exposed as such.

How does God weigh such sins of betrayal against the good that was undeniably accomplished? I do not know. I don’t think I want to know in this life what divine calculation measures out perfect justice and perfect mercy.

We can only pray for all those who have been abused and their trust violated. They must not feel abandoned by their Church.  

We must also take a hard look at the cult of celebrity in our own Church, be it priest or bishop, nun or layperson. We need to stop making saints of mere mortals in this life, no matter how virtuous or eloquent they seem.

Let’s leave the saint making to God, and keep our focus firmly fixed not on those who serve, but on those we are called to serve, and on the Lord we profess to follow.

Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at [email protected].