The headlines promised a breath-taking revelation about the best-known Catholic of the 20th century – “Revealed: St John Paul II’s relationship with a married woman”, wrote The Tablet, while The Independent asked: “Did the Pope have a lover?”
They were reporting on a supposedly explosive discovery by the BBC’s Panorama programme. Presenter Ed Stourton had discovered a cache of “secret” letters written by the pope to a married woman, the Polish-born American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. She sold the letters in 2008 to the National Library of Poland, for a suspected “seven-figure sum”, according to Panorama.
The programme explained that their friendship began in 1973 when Tymieniecka wrote to then Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków, praising a book on philosophy he had written. At the future pope’s invitation, the 50-year-old travelled from America to Poland to discuss the work. It was eventually agreed that she would take on translating his book, Person and Act, into English.
The BBC said: “At first the cardinal’s letters were formal, but as their friendship grew, they become more intimate.”
How, exactly? Cardinal Wojtyła wrote to Tymieniecka in 1974 telling her that he was re-reading one of her four letters to him because they were “so meaningful and deeply personal”. In a letter dated September 10, 1976, he wrote: “Already last year I was looking for an answer to these words, ‘I belong to you’, and finally, before leaving Poland, I found a way – a scapular.”
He said it allowed him to “accept and feel you everywhere in all kinds of situations, whether you are close – or far away”. What else has been documented about the friendship between Ms Tymieniecka Cardinal Wojtyła?
In George Weigel’s biography of the Pope, Witness to Hope, she only appears in a footnote. But Garry O’Connor writes in his book, Universal Father, A Life of Pope John Paul II, that philosopher George Hunston William observed “a highly charged erotic energy” between the pope and Tymieniecka.
In an article for the BBC website promoting the programme, Stourton wrote: “I have done some old-fashioned journalistic sleuthing, and I believe that at an early stage of the relationship – probably in the summer of 1975 – Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka told Karol Wojtyła that she was in love with him.”
This is speculation, and yet he goes on to say: “I have been unable to confirm that his correspondence with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka was considered during the saint-making process, as it certainly should have been.”
Should it have? Catholic journalist Jonathan Luxmoore points out that canon law does not prohibit priests from having friendships with women: “Canon law talks about continence and celibacy and he was someone who was well qualified in upholding this.” He added: “Celibacy is often talked about in a narrow and dry way and it has become an obsession that it’s connected with sex, and this kind of story deepens our understanding of what celibacy is.”
Some of the people who know St John Paul II’s life best are also sceptical about the BBC’s story, which suggestively presented photos of Tymieniecka and the future pope on a camping holiday, all the while insisting that “there is no suggestion the pope broke his vow
George Weigel described the BBC’s claims as a “tempest in a teapot”. He asked: “Why should anyone find it odd that priests and bishops should have friendships with women, including the kind of friendships in which emotions and ideas are expressed in correspondence?”
Intriguingly, Garry O’Connor’s book reports that communist agents noticed that Tymieniecka and Cardinal Wojtyła were spending time together and spread rumours that the relationship was sexual. He writes: “But then, and later when he was pope, journalists scoured the earth looking for women who had been his lover, wife or companion; ‘they found none because there were none’.”
Crucially, Stourton admitted that “I have only seen one side of the correspondence – his letters to her – and it is, of course, sometimes impossible to know what the cardinal is referring to.”
Therefore, despite all the nudging and winking, we only have half a story here. The only way of fully understanding the friendship between John Paul II and Tymieniecka would be if her letters to him were also released. Until then, despite pulling out all the stops, the Beeb is simply relying on guesswork.
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