The BBC “documentary” that aired on February 15, The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II, tells us nothing really new about John Paul. But it does tell us a something about the decline of the BBC as a source of serious television reporting, even as it illuminates the misconceptions under which too much secular journalism operates when writing about the Catholic Church, its clergy, and celibacy.
Longtime BBC talking head Edward Stourton’s program is based on a cache of letters from Karol Wojtyła/Pope John Paul II to Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a Polish philosopher who was, as has long been known, a friend of Wojtyła’s. The letters reflect a deep and searching friendship, not unlike other letters of Wojtyła’s, some of which I reprinted in the first volume of my biography of the pope, Witness to Hope. Stourton, however, takes Wojtyła’s letters to Tymieniecka (who died in 2014), throws them into the Freudian Mixmaster with the previously published correspondence between Wojtyła/John Paul and another old friend, the Polish psychologist Wanda Połtawska, and then suggests that there was something intriguing here, something that, while not quite untoward, should nonetheless change our perceptions of John Paul II (wink, wink, nod, nod).
That Karol Wojtyła had many friendships, including close friendships, with women has been well known for decades and ought hardly be surprising. I carefully explored some of those friendships in Witness to Hope and the second volume of my John Paul II biography, The End and the Beginning. Many of those relationships date back to Wojtyła’s years as a university chaplain in Stalinist Poland. Others were formed when he was archbishop of Kraków. Still others formed when he was pope. John Paul II cherished his friendships, kept them green over time, and was intensely loyal to his friends. That loyalty was tested in his friendship with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, and a few words about that, and their friendship, are in order.
John Paul II cherished his friendships, kept them green over time, and was intensely loyal to his friends. That loyalty was tested in his friendship with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.
Tymieniecka even changed the book’s title in English, rendering “Osoba i czyn” as “The Acting Person,” when in fact the correct translation would be, as just indicated, “Person and Act.” Wojtyła’s title suggests the tension between objective moral action (what we do) and our subjective consciousness (what we think we are doing and what we learn from doing it), which is the matrix of his reflections. Tymieniecka’s title loosens that tension and overstresses the subjective, or phenomenological, side of Wojtyła’s analysis – which is, in a way, oddly appropriate, because that is precisely the severe criticism leveled against Tymieniecka’s reworking of the text by those who had long worked with Karol Wojtyła the philosopher.
These problems only surfaced after Wojtyła had been elected pope – when he had no time to check hundreds of pages of text in a language in which he was not entirely comfortable. So John Paul II appointed a commission – composed of his principal philosophical disciple, Father Tadeusz Styczeń; his old friend and fellow philosopher Father Marian Jaworski; and Andrzej Połtawski, another philosopher and the husband of Wanda Połtawska – to review and correct the English text prepared by Tymieniecka. But she refused to take corrections from anyone but Wojtyła and, furthermore, was eager to get the book into print to take advantage of the author’s new, worldwide celebrity. She also claimed that she had Wojtyła’s agreement to publish hers as “the definitive text” of the book, although why any “definitive” text would have two chapter sevens, one of which is labeled “unrevised,” was not clear then, and is not clear today.
So the Wojtyla–Tymieniecka relationship was a complex one. That it included a visit to her home in Vermont in 1976, at the time when Wojtyła gave a lecture at Harvard Summer School, is not surprising, because that fact has been well known and appears in the standard reference book on Wojtyła’s pre-papal life. But to suggest that their relationship involved some sort of secret romance is sheer speculation, in which, unfortunately, Edward Stourton is not hesitant to indulge (although he describes his wanderings in the psychoanalytic fever swamps as “old-fashioned journalistic sleuthing”). Karol Wojtyla had many close friendships; he often worked out the meaning of those friendships in correspondence with his friends. In my own correspondence from him, you can “hear” him thinking through a problem or an issue. That he would do this with friends such as Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka or Wanda Połtawska ought not be surprising – except to those who carry a burden of false assumptions about love, celibacy, and their relationship.
I once asked his former seminary spiritual director, Stanisław Smoleński (who later became his auxiliary bishop in Kraków), to summarize the character of the young Karol Wojtyła he had known during the long dark night of Nazi occupation. He was, Bishop Smoleński replied, a man who “loved easily.” Karol Wojtyła had had completely normal relationships and friendships as a teenager and young adult with both men and women. As a mature man, he took the decision to express his capacity for love as a celibate in the priesthood of the Catholic Church. He was not choosing to be a “bachelor.” He was choosing to express his love and his paternal instinct spiritually, through the gift of his life in service to others.
All of this is, alas, incomprehensible to those who seemingly cannot think of celibacy as anything other than repression in the service of clerical power.
That celibate commitment did not render him a eunuch, devoid of emotion. It certainly didn’t make him into the kind of man who couldn’t abide the company of women (like C. S. Lewis, on Isaiah Berlin’s 1933 estimation of him). Karol Wojtyła, Pope John Paul II, channeled his passions, including the strength of his friendships, into a priesthood of service to others, an episcopate in which he defended the rights of all Poles to their liberties, and a papacy that revitalized the Church and bent the course of world history in a more humane direction. And along the way, as priest, bishop, and pope, he was accompanied by friends, men and women, who knew him for a man of singular goodness and integrity.
All of this is, alas, incomprehensible to those – including, it appears, senior figures at the BBC – who seemingly cannot think of celibacy as anything other than repression in the service of clerical power. It is also incomprehensible to those who cannot imagine how a man who defended and promoted classic Christian sexual ethics could have friendships, including close friendships, with women. Yet it was precisely those friendships, lived in an intimacy that was not sexual but was quite real, that helped Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II give a fresh new articulation to the ethics of love and responsibility (to borrow one of his book’s titles).
The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II is a BBC tempest in a teapot. So is the feeding frenzy that has gone on in the world press since the British papers and American blogosphere started running stories with heavy-breathing headlines about the “documentary” (“Did John Paul II Fall in Love with Married American Academic? BBC to Investigate”; “Did Pope John Paul II Have a Secret Lover?”). The Wojtyła–Tymieniecka letters might have been the occasion to explore how friendships shape individuals and their thinking and action, taking a step beyond the all too typical journalistic concept of biography as pathography. That opportunity was missed. It would be a sign of real investigative journalism if Edward Stourton and the BBC asked themselves why that happened – and if so many other scribes who imagine themselves tough-minded asked themselves why they swallowed the gamy bait.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.