Pope's friendships with women no argument against celibacy
Published 19/02/2016 | 02:30
Much more interesting than our dull election campaign is the 'revelation' that Pope John Paul II had a close friendship for more than 30 years with a married Polish academic by the name of Anna-Teresa Tymienecka. This story touches on sex and love and men and women. How does your average election campaign compare with that?
This story is in the news because the BBC's Edward Stourton went to the bother of going to Poland in order to access the papers of Tymienecka, a philosopher, including her private papers. Among her private papers are more than 300 letters to her from Pope John Paul II spanning the period from 1973 (before he became pope) until his death in 2005.
These letters formed the basis of a 'Panorama' documentary broadcast this week. The Pope was obviously very fond of her and she of him but no-one is suggesting that their friendship developed into a sexual relationship.
Why then are the letters news at all? The answer is the rule of celibacy. The fact that John Paul and Tymienecka had a close friendship is being used as an argument against the rule.
There seems to be an underlying assumption that a person committed to the life of celibacy should not have a close friendship with a member of the opposite sex, which is roughly equivalent to saying a married person should not have a close friendship with a member of the opposite sex.
Both the celibate and the married people have made a commitment. The vowed celibate has promised never to enter into a sexual relationship. A married person has promised to have a sexual relationship with their spouse only.
Neither of these vows stops them having a close friendship with a member of the opposite sex. It simply means that the relationship will have to observe certain boundaries and be careful not to cross them.
Anna-Teresa Tymienecka met Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope John Paul) when she was 50 and he was 53 and the Archbishop of Krakow in his native Poland. So they were both past the first flush of youth.
They met because they were both philosophers and their academic collaboration developed into the very close friendship revealed in the letters. Tymienecka married in 1956, so she was married for 17 years by the time of her first meeting with Wojtyla in 1973. She was living and working in the United States by then.
Her husband, who died in 2008, three years after John Paul II (she died in 2014) was well aware of his wife's friendship with Wojtyla. If he thought it was in any way inappropriate, wouldn't he have made his feelings known?
And by 'inappropriate', I don't even mean sexual, I just mean too close for comfort.
In any event, there were few opportunities for them to meet in person. For the most part, their friendship was long distance. He lived in Poland and from 1978 in Rome, while she lived in America.
A woman Wojtyla was much closer to and had far more dealings with than Tymienecka, was the psychiatrist, Wanda Poltawska. He knew her from 1950 until his death in 2005. They, too, wrote hundreds of letters to one another.
They were also philosophical and spiritual soulmates. Like Tymienecka, Poltawska was married. She and Pope John Paul were so close that in the years of his illness she would come to him and sit beside him and read out loud to him when he was too tired and unwell to read for himself.
In the earlier years of his papacy, she and her husband and their children would sometimes stay with him when he was holidaying.
In other words, John Paul was a man who liked company and who developed strong, lasting friendships with both men and women.
Why do we find this so surprising? Indeed, aren't we always complaining that celibate men can't possibly understand women? And yet when we find out that John Paul II had close friendships with several women we go straight into 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' mode. Could we try to be just a little more grown up about it?
I'm not even sure what those who are using the friendship between Wojtyla and Tymienecka to argue against celibacy are trying to say. Are they saying that they should have been free to marry each other? But she was already married.
So are they really saying that once you have any kind of feelings for another person that hint at the romantic, you should be free to walk away from your vows, from your promises, from your commitments, from your responsibilities?
But the precise reason vows exist is to help us resist passing feelings. Vows, of course, don't fit well with an age that emphasises feelings and 'autonomy' above lifelong fidelity and commitment, whether they be celibacy vows or marriage vows.
We find the rule of celibacy (strictly speaking, diocesan priests don't actually take a vow of celibacy) especially objectionable because we assume the sex drive is so powerful it can only be resisted at great cost to our psyche.
In fact, the rule of celibacy, properly understood, isn't a rejection of sex at all. It's really a promise not to have a family of your own. If priests were permitted to marry, they would be expected to have children as well. This would give them less time to devote to their parishes because they would have to divide their time between their parish ministry and their family. The rule of celibacy is, therefore, actually about service.
Let's assume though that priests were allowed to marry. Do we imagine for a moment that some wouldn't break their marriage vows? Should we then allow them to divorce and remarry?
A few years ago a Church of Ireland bishop left his wife for a woman who in turn left her husband. He resigned as a result. It received very little publicity. He died recently.
Vows are broken every day, but if we don't believe in vows as a result of that, then we don't believe in the possibility of lifelong commitments, not even to our families.
John Paul II broke no vow and no-one is suggesting he did. But they seem to be suggesting that he somehow broke it in spirit. That is also nonsense. A celibate man, like a married man, can have close friendships with members of the opposite sex and keep his vows both by the letter and spirit of the vows.
The only thing we learnt this week is that John Paul II had strong friendships with women as well as men. That should be a surprise only to those who have a very stereotypical view of the celibate life.