Everyone knows Mother Teresa. But you may not know the name Jean Vanier. I did. He was Canada’s equivalent to Mother Teresa.
Vanier was the son of a Canadian ambassador, who became a Catholic theologian and philosopher and left academia to found the international L’Arche communities for people with developmental disabilities (currently 154 centers in 38 countries).
Vanier was widely regarded as a living saint.
He won numerous prizes, including the prestigious Order of Canada, the Legion of Honor (France), and the Templeton Prize (worth $1.4 million). He was said to be a perpetual nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Numerous schools were named after him. He died in Paris in 2019.
Here is an article by Christianity Today praising him after he died.
And then, on Saturday, Feb 22, a bombshell hit. Canada’s Globe and Mail reported that an internal investigation conducted by L’Arche concluded that Vanier had sexually abused at least six women who had come to him for spiritual guidance. That’s six that they know of.
In fact, a few years ago, the co-founder of L’Arche and Jean Vanier’s spiritual advisor was also guilty of multiple accounts of sexual abuse.
In light of these revelations, an online commentator wrote,
“Finding out about Jean Vanier’s sexual abuse has been existentially catastrophic because of how Vanier’s protege Henri Nouwen shaped me spiritually. God has really convicted me with this warning for mystically wired spiritual teachers like me.”
I read the news in a class I was taking at McMaster Divinity College. My fellow students were just as devastated. The day before, we had been talking about Aristotle, virtue ethics, and the problem of Roman Catholic priests sexually abusing boys and the Bishops who worked to cover it up. How was that possible, we asked?
And now Vanier, too?
The Canadian saint?
My fellow students not only seemed perplexed and clearly upset but were really struggling to understand how a “Christian” could act like that. They were so vexed that, as the conversation continued, I began to wonder if their perplexity reflected a belief in salvation by works.
I suggested that, while I was disappointed, I wasn’t surprised that Vanier did that since “No one is good but God,” as Jesus said (Mark 10:18). I explained that I have a “low” anthropology. That means, while I don’t go so far as the Calvinists and say that we are totally unable to respond to God without being regenerated first, I do think that no one is good in an absolute sense. We’re all sinners in need of a Savior. And that is precisely whom God justifies—ungodly people who stop working for their salvation and simply believe in Jesus. As Paul said, “But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom 4:5). Whatever progress you can make in the Christian life, you never outgrow the need to be justified by faith apart from works. You remain a sinner who needs a Savior until the day you die.
By contrast, I said, other Christians have a “high” anthropology. They think that people aren’t so bad that they can’t climb up the ladder of salvation. All they need is a little help from God, and the advice of a spiritual adviser like Vanier or Nouwen, and hopefully, if you’re good enough and virtuous enough, you can make it to the top of the ladder and get saved. And if you’re not good enough, you can lose your salvation or prove that you were never saved to begin with. And if that’s your view of salvation, it’s really upsetting to find out the people whom you thought were at the top of the ladder have either fallen down or were never on it to begin with.
“But you can’t just say a prayer and then do nothing the rest of your life!” one student objected.
“That’s right,” I said. “A prayer won’t do it. But you can be justified by faith apart from any works.”
Let Jean Vanier be a warning to all who think salvation is a ladder they need to climb with the help of a spiritual advisor. Don’t put your trust in people, especially teachers who reject the gospel. Put it in Jesus Christ who promised us eternal life (1 John 2:25).