Thomas Reese on When Saints Fall

Jean Vanier visits Sebastien, a young man whose injuries in a car accident left him with profound cognitive and physical disabilities, at the L’Arche care home in Trosly-Breuil, France, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Summer in the Forest/R2W Films

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest, is a Senior Analyst at RNS. Previously he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter (2015-17) and an associate editor (1978-85) and editor in chief (1998-2005) at America magazine. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


(RNS) — In one of my earliest memories, my father is warning me about a famous man, “Remember, he still puts his pants on one leg at a time.” I remembered this warning when I heard about the fall of another famous icon, Brother Jean Vanier, the revered founder of L’Arche, an ecumenical community where disabled and able persons live in Christian fellowship.

Vanier, who died last year at the age of 90, has been credibly accused of an abusive sexual relationship with six non-disabled adult women to whom he was giving spiritual direction. In other words, this was not just a one-night fling with someone met in a singles bar. These were calculated and manipulative attacks on women under the guise of bringing them closer to God.

These accusations were investigated by an independent agency at the request of L’Arche’s new leadership, which agreed with the findings and made them public. Despite our anger, we should still congratulate L’Arche for its transparency. We must also thank the women who had the courage to come forward.

Vanier was once talked about as a possible recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, even canonization. To discover that such a person was a fraud makes me angry.

At the same time, I ask myself, why am I surprised? History has taught us the flawed and sinful character of most famous men. Some of the founding fathers fathered children with their slaves. History is full of bad popes, bishops and priests. European and American history is full of great leaders and thinkers who were anti-Semites and racists.

During my lifetime, John Kennedy and Thomas Merton had their affairs. The “Me Too” movement has ripped away the curtain to expose men who are not the gentlemen they projected publicly.

Even the Scriptures describe people as flawed who played important roles in salvation history: Eve, Abraham, Moses, David and the Twelve. It is nearly impossible to find an important figure in the Bible who is not also a sinner. In Mark’s Gospel, nobody understands Jesus, not even his mother (Mark 3).

Does that mean that we must discard everything these sinners did? Do we stop honoring Abraham because he pimped his wife to Pharaoh in exchange for livestock and slaves? Do we stop praying the psalms because David had Uriah killed so he could have his wife Bathsheba? Do we burn the books of Thomas Merton because he had an affair? Do we close down L’Arche because Vanier abused his position as a spiritual father?

The message of the Scriptures is not that these are holy men but that God can use flawed and sinful people to do great things. We continue to see that throughout history and in our own time. Part of growing up is recognizing that our heroes have clay feet.

But forgiveness is something else.

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Source: Religion News Service