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The Fall of the Mighty

I remember the day clearly. The phone call from Oslo took me by surprise. It was the publisher of the Norwegian edition of my book Logician of the Heart, and I was especially chuffed to be published in a Scandinavian language. After all, Higgins, in Irish O hUiggín, means descendant of a Viking and I have always been much taken by this tenuous connection to the Norsemen.

I wasn’t chuffed after the phone call.

I was informed that my book was being pulped, extinguished, made a distant memory only.  Within a couple of days of receiving this desolating news I was told by Liturgical Press in Minnesota that they were doing likewise and that all catalogs listing the book were to be similarly purged. To be twice pulped in one week struck me as more than bad timing.

You see, the logician of the title was Jean Vanier, the now disgraced spiritual genius whose fall from the heights of honor was traumatic for countless people. The co-founder of L’Arche—a movement for the intellectually challenged—and a spiritual counselor and writer for multitudes, Vanier was an eminence with few equals in both the Catholic world and beyond with every possible dignity bestowed on him by pontiffs, prime ministers, presidents and monarchs. Shortly after his death, Vanier was discovered to have been in a series of relationships with women that were judged to be not only morally inappropriate but abusive.

His halo was expunged, and it is no exaggeration to say that millions were disillusioned—if not devastated. For those of us who were Vanier biographers, it was a grim time with the media. How could all of us have missed his sexually exploitative behavior? Easy enough, when there is neither a public record nor a private correspondence to suggest such behavior, when no one came forward with allegations until shortly before his death and when an international investigation into the accusations of the five complainants was conducted entirely sub secreto, until, in other words, the damage surfaced into the light.

The bravery of these women is extraordinary given Vanier’s exalted status.

But Vanier is only one of many spiritual and artistic luminaries in the last few years whose time of reckoning has come. David Haas, the popular composer of liturgical music, is the subject of numerous civil suits for serial predation, has conceded that his behavior with scores of young women was reprehensible and has seen his music delisted by his publisher and banned from performance in numerous churches and dioceses.

Now, the case of the Slovenian artist, mosaicist and Jesuit spiritual director, Marko Rupnik has the Catholic universe in turmoil. Rupnik has been accused of the spiritual and sexual abuse of many women who belong to a religious body he is associated with called the Loyola Community. The Society of Jesus has imposed penalties, and the Vatican has both excommunicated him and subsequently lifted the excommunication; the authorities have restricted his priestly activities and censured his behavior in strong canonical terms, but in the end appear to have done all of this in a cloud of opacity. Numerous Catholic outlets, many of an obscurantist and anti-Pope Francis disposition like The Pillar, The National Catholic Register and Catholic World Report, were quick in moving on the unfolding scandal of Rupnik’s behavior, Rome’s perceived tardiness and what many have judged to be cumbersome Jesuit media footwork.

Rupnik’s work—individual or through his artistic collective the Centro Aletti—is to be found all over the world, including in Portugal, Italy and the United States. In fact, the Chapel of the Holy Spirit at Sacred Heart University has his artistically inventive rendering of the Harrowing of Hell that has generated wide admiration in both professional and devotional circles.

Like that other great Catholic artist, Eric Gill, whose masterfully conceived and executed sacred and secular sculptures are to be found throughout Great Britain, and whose incestuous and pedophiliac exploits shocked the world when revealed in 1989, appreciation of Rupnik’s art is now seriously compromised by his nefarious behavior.

In the end, although this is not likely to be the end, it is possible to draw some conclusions about the Vanier, Haas and Rupnik scandals. Although it is understandable that a process of erasure and indictment has its psychological and political rationale, to decimate the legacy entirely does disproportionate damage. To lose access to the writings of Vanier, in particular his seminal Becoming Human, is to compound the tragedy. A moral blitzkrieg has collateral pain.

What we have learned from all these instances is that the explosive combination of spiritual and erotic intimacy should be seen for what it is—manipulative predation—rather than how it is rationalized by the moral culprits as a special innocence, an entitled relationship. The deep pathology that runs through centuries of Catholic teaching on sexuality—a pathology marked by a deep fear of sexual pleasure with its body-versus-spirit dualism—needs to be recognized for its destructive potential. And the aftershocks of patriarchy reverberate throughout all of society. It’s time for a new and healthier anthropology.

Michael Higgins is a distinguished professor emeritus at Sacred Heart University and Basilian distinguished professor of contemporary Catholic thought, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.


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