L’Arche Leads To Caregivers’ Moral Transformation


In 2007, the John Templeton Foundation’s Humble Approach Initiative held a symposium titled “Learning from the Disabled,” which brought together an impressive assortment of social scientists and theologians. They gathered to address a question posed by L’Arche’s visionary founding leader and 2015 Templeton Prize laureate, Jean Vanier: “What have people with disabilities taught me?” The answers are presented in a book, The Paradox of Disability: Responses to Jean Vanier and L’Arche Communities from Theology and the Sciences.

Thirteen investigators, including Vanier, met for the symposium in Trosly-Breuil in northern France, home of the first L’Arche community, to examine how the experiences of caregivers may overturn the classical notion of opera supererogatoria (works beyond the call of duty) to the extent that, far from being a form of “good Samaritanism” or action beyond the pale of duty, their work with the disabled can sometimes result in their own moral transformation. Though not without cost or pain, it can teach them a great deal about their own capacity for self-deception and thereby strip away one barrier to their human relationships and the relationship they might desire with God.

The book, edited by Hans S. Reinders and published by Wm. B. Eerdmans, explores how Vanier’s philosophy is a dramatic counterpoint to the utilitarian understanding of moral good, namely the calculation that assesses “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Vanier’s way is a matter of “just generosity,” to use the phrase of the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, when describing the virtue that requires people to be uncalculating in dealing with those who are disabled. The symposium considered such ethical issues as the limits of responsibility and duty, as well as psychological issues dealing with the basis of altruism and ontological issues related to the difference between “being” and “doing.” It sought answers to such key philosophical questions as: Who is worthy of love? What is the emotional-relational basis for inclusivity? It seems that however able or disabled we may be, “communion is,” as Jean Vanier has written, “at the heart of the mystery of our humanity.”