Trigger/Content warning: discussion of sexual and spiritual abuse, sexual content
Because of the strength of its communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together, L’Arche has long enjoyed a first-rate international reputation. Thus, after the death of founder Jean Vanier in 2019, the revelations about his abusive relationships with non-disabled adult women could register as yet another appalling but nevertheless sadly predictable instance of a well-regarded authority’s exploitation of those under them.
News of this February’s massive 900-page report working through this abuse could also leave a similar impression – that is, if one did not engage the actual report, or come across select coverage highlighting Vanier’s persistent adherence to “mystical-sexual” practices and his decades-long fixation on incestuous relations between Jesus and Mary.
To be blunt – the renowned L’Arche communities, incest. How do those two go together? It just does not compute. The report’s plain, distilled claim stated that a hidden sectarian core had produced all this abuse, as well as the separable and eminently worthwhile movement. But the connection between the two simply is elusive, and in no world does something like this seem real.
And yet the report is there, and yes, everything really does make sense, although its bewildering details and the emphases of news coverage have disguised some key patterns and drained the summation of the plausibility that it really and truly does possess.
To take a step back from the actual people and events, humans have an endless capacity to re-valuate and re-periodize, especially when it comes to matters of religion.
In terms of re-valuation, it’s important to remember that objects just are, but people can come to diametrically opposed conclusions about them. For example, years ago a Religious Studies acquaintance regaled me with some details of dietary logics that he had found: for something like lacto-fermentation where bacteria multiply and transform a vegetable into a pickle, one group conceptualized eating the resultant food as this wonderful imbibing of an explosion of life, while another forbade it because the bacteria also continually die and thus you’re imbibing vast quantities of death. Same food, different logic imposed on top of it. Here one might also think of a classic example from scholar Peter Brown, on the evolution of towns in Late Antiquity; as Christianity and its values shaped the Greco-Roman world, the contaminant of cemeteries found outside town walls was brought inside and celebrated, in churches that venerated the relics of saints and martyrs.
In terms of re-periodization, people can supplement and reframe prior knowledge in light of some break in time, even if others don’t or wouldn’t accept the premise of that change. In a small way, this is what happens in ghost shows on cable TV; a poor little child dies of influenza, and then in a very perverse turn of events beyond anything that the child would have ever been able to conceive of, a television crew shows up over a century later and hears of a dark presence in a house, and then some mention of a pioneer family in the county archives suddenly turns that oblivious and long-dead infant into a tyrant spirit repeatedly assaulting the living. More seriously, such a change formed Christianity; after the Crucifixion, scripture was re-read around a messiah of a quite unexpected nature, and a new plan stretching from creation through the end of the world was suddenly thought to have always been there. Some believe this reordering is true and some don’t, but, academically-speaking, it’s indisputable that such a re-periodization has taken place.
When it comes to L’Arche, the skeleton of events is this: as a child of a Canadian diplomatic family, Jean Vanier fell under the influence of a French Dominican priest named Thomas Philippe, who had developed a 1938 revelation into “mystical-sexual” practices affecting several convents and a group that he founded called L’Eau Vive. Then, after facing down a Vatican investigation and trial and resultant 1956 sanctions, that priest and others like Vanier persisted and quietly re-coaleseced around what had begun emerging by 1964 as the principal foundation of L’Arche, although they were quickly hemmed in by the movement’s success and the inclusion of many others with different intentions and no knowledge of the continuing esoteric activity. As the report indicates, self-narrations of Vanier and his developing hagiography concealed these major biographical gaps; the discretion around the 1956 trial and generational changes among authorities also did not help, although as late as 1977 enough knowledge persisted to permanently deny Vanier access to priestly ordination in a decision validated by Pope Paul VI.
Throughout these events, scattered sources haphazardly provide glimpses of what seems to be a coherent evolution of the now-infamous “mystical-sexual” practices. In 1938, Thomas Philippe stood in front of a Roman fresco of Mater Admirabilis and “received very obscure graces” that centered on his genitals; eventually, this became fit into a supersessionary narrative where his versions of Jesus and Mary made manifest the redemption of the fallen nature of the sexual organs and together undertook earthly intercourse, interactions that correspond to their continuing heavenly activities and prefigure the common fate of the blessed in eschatological happiness. Here, although not mentioned in the report itself – and figuring into a wide range of theological steps that deserve further interrogation – these conceptualizations seem to refract very occasional speculations of Augustine, where uncontrollable sexual arousal was thought a result of Adam and Eve’s Fall; within a sort of twisted logic, Jesus and Mary lacked original sin and therefore possessed Edenic physiology, and thus, coeval with the Kingdom, their unpolluted sexuality could start to unfold an accordant erotic redemption among an elite portion of humanity. In any case, Thomas Philippe engaged in a period of experimentation marked by events like group prayer with naked women and, after the failure of a Marian promise of contraception, a 1947 abortion and subsequent veneration of the fetus as a relic. Subsequently, and as was in effect by the time of Vanier’s 1952 sexual initiation, the practices seem to have largely stabilized as non-penetrative intercourse where participants considered themselves as somehow embodying Jesus and Mary and enacting these cosmic secrets. After the reconstitution of the sect through L’Arche, such practices continued among a very small group and could surface obliquely, such as in Vanier’s abusive interactions with non-disabled adult women.
Indeed, lest it be questioned, sectarian persistence did hover around the origins and edges of L’Arche. The devotee Jacqueline d’Halluin who initiated Vanier in 1952 suggested the organization’s name, composed a major institutional prayer, and surfaced in long-term governance of a para-institutional site where Thomas Philippe resided. That priest also helped shape early community statutes. Most strikingly, Vanier himself commented in 1964 that L’Arche (“the ark”) floats on L’Eau Vive (“the living water”). Concurrent was an overwhelming emphasis on secrecy, including coded letters, rare cryptic sections in Vanier’s public writings amenable to multiple interpretations, and continual manipulation of information, like a 1959 letter where Thomas Philippe suggested that the well-connected Vanier be guarded with the Pope because “the Good Lord is not enlightening John XXIII in this affair” and “Mary prefers the whole domain to remain hidden.” As the report strikingly observes, “To fight against such a group would have required considering a priori each member of the ‘sect,’ identified or only suspected in 1956, as a liar for life,” a task more befitting “a counterintelligence service than a dicastery of the Roman curia.”
Yet in spite of all this new information and perspective, the issue highlighted in current reporting still persists – how does the existence of L’Arche as a “screen” organization co-exist with a sincere charitable impulse? This question is made all the more pointed by how many spiritual figures didn’t know everything that we know now but still saw something very wrong, whether a Carmelite nun warning Vanier’s mother away from Thomas Philippe in the late 1940s, or philosopher Jacques Maritain noting in his journal in 1952, “The devil is romping around in this incredible affair.” Indeed, in Vanier’s own relation, no less than Pope John XXIII told him alone in the elevator during a private 1959 audience with his family, “You must leave Father Thomas.”
Although subtle, perhaps the single most important explanatory factor found in this new report is a preoccupation with the miraculous, particularly anything attributed to Mary. Early on, Thomas Philippe saw his work fulfilling a local prophecy of something afoot greater than Catherine of Siena, but apparitions were particularly revered by the sect’s members. In the early 1950s, Vanier chauffeured Thomas Philippe around, including to La Salette; for a time starting in 1959, Vanier himself took up residence at Fatima; and, in 1971, the first mention of Vanier in Le Monde is for organizing pilgrimages of the disabled to Lourdes. Mary, of course, was the supposed revelator to Thomas Philippe, and Vanier reportedly brought people to the Mater Admirabilis fresco on pilgrimages in the early years of L’Arche. Accordingly, the fundamental issue at the heart of this scandal is not so much abuse writ large or mystical-sexual practices per se, but rather a type of Catholic with a propensity to be drawn towards Medjugorje or worse, thus rendering themselves vulnerable to aberrant claims of and behavior around special revelation and all the places that can go. In other words, at the heart of L’Arche’s troubling history is not abuse, but rather an uncritical mindset that so prized the wondrous that it got drawn into arranging all of existence around theologically-rationalized abuse purportedly heralded by Mary.
Here – to draw one last set of parallels – it must be remembered that this set of circumstances clustering around L’Arche is really a Catholic variant of a not uncommon religious situation where charismatic claims collide with a bureaucratically-routinized central church authority that attempts to guide people and set proper boundaries, including, in select extreme cases, with flat denial of experiences’ authenticity and penalties for those who still adhere. To follow the analysis of Leah Sottile’s When the Moon Turns to Blood, this is essentially what lies behind the Lori Vallow Mormon cult murder case that has been creating true crime headlines. Whereas the Roman Catholic Church has a tradition wherein the Pope appoints Cardinals who in turn elect the next Pope, Vallow’s own Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) has a system wherein the longest-serving member of the Quorum of Twelve is President and appoints new Apostles from whose number the next President will come. Whereas the Catholic Church must deal with claims about appearances of Mary, for example, the LDS also can have a strong culture of the wondrous with everything from dreams to prophecies, including, with the Vallow case, revelations from near-death experiences that circulated via speaking circuits and special publishing houses and dovetailed with survivalist doomsday prepping. Whereas the Catholic hierarchy set up investigations into Thomas Philippe and permanently denied Vanier access to the priesthood, the Mormon hierarchy reportedly excommunicated Vallow’s revelator-turned-lover Chad Daybell. And, in both cases, these interventions were insufficient and some people kept heeding these claims about the divine breaking into this world, resulting in, on the one hand, a fixation on supposed Jesus-Mary incest and the abuse at the heart of the L’Arche scandal, and, on the other hand, escalating claims about abilities to identify entities who had taken over human bodies like Vallow’s own two children, both of whom turned up dead and resulted in her recent conviction.
In such cases, though extreme, the central hierarchy is merely dealing with radical manifestations of something that it has encountered many times before, and, in its greater stability, it can ideally serve as a check-and-balance and repository of wisdom and experience in vetting such claims and accompanying others through engagement with them. Here, it must be remembered that someone like Pope Francis is not averse to reverence for Marian apparitions — he recently changed the itinerary of an upcoming trip to Portugal to include a trip to Fatima – but Francis has continued a nuanced but firm approach to the claims of and happenings around something like Medjugorje, much like Benedict and John Paul II before him. (Although often cited as support, the apocryphal quote of John Paul II that “If I were not pope I would already be in Medjugorje confessing” can also be read as displaying a certain caution, it must be noted.) For example, investigations into those apparitions’ authenticity have been slow and careful and apparently raised concerns about at least their partial questionability, while an overly-zealous priest who guided the seers and fathered a child with a nun was disciplined under Benedict and then excommunicated under Francis. Complementing this, however, has been an evolving but long-evidenced pastoral approach for pilgrims, whose confessions have been termed by a papally-appointed apostolic visitor “the biggest miracle of Medjugorje,” in conjunction with an assertion that “a special spiritual climate” exists there.
Thus, although the revelations of Thomas Philippe were very extreme and took a very disturbing form, their relation to something as laudable as L’Arche is akin enough to aspects of something much better known like Medjugorje, wherein the transgressions of an excommunicated priest are counterbalanced by the hopes and virtues elicited in pilgrims. As good exists in the murkiness there, with L’Arche a great evil somehow also birthed a great good.
Major organizations with deep founding flaws are unavoidable. The Nobel Prize began with a dynamite fortune, and the U.S. Constitution with slavery and restricted suffrage. Within Catholicism, there is Covenant House, or the Legionaries of Christ. Figuring into this spectrum, L’Arche does not appear to present any insuperable barriers to rehabilitation. It is already displaying willingness to face its history and the abuse, and in some sense the organization is almost like a larger institutional manifestation of a situation probably familiar to the religious orders peopling the shrines at places like Fatima and Lourdes and Medjugorje – a pilgrim who has been attached to some very strange beliefs and practices, but who also a has a true goodness that must be separated out and nurtured and grown.
Thus, although at first unbelievable, the new report’s fundamental evaluation does stand and is indeed plausible: there once existed a strange sectarian core but, despite its abuses, it created something else that is worthwhile and should live on. And, when the nature of that sect is engaged and its roots in perverted Marian spirituality are fully acknowledged, it also turns out that there exist from elsewhere in the Catholic world even more patterns of and resources for rehabilitation.
David Mihalyfy received his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His writing on New Religious Movements (popularly known as “cults”) has appeared in venues like the Atlantic Monthly online and the scholarly journal Nova Religio. Although perhaps unfamiliar due to their overall absence from most news coverage, details about the history of Vanier and L’Arche were carefully collated from the English translation of the February 2023 report.