Why Pope John Paul's letters to married woman are a game changer for Church
Published 17/02/2016 | 02:30
Twitter was soon responding with customary satire: "Vatican Issues Angry Denial That Pope John Paul II was Heterosexual" tweeted one wag. And cartoonists were quick to see an angle. Lonelyheart bloke: "I need to go on a date. There have been popes who have had more success with women than me."
It has, indeed, been a sensational revelation, and a historic scoop for Ed Stourton, the Catholic journalist (who himself comes from a Recusant family - the English Catholics who resisted the Reformation): that the Polish Pope John Paul II had, for more than 30 years, maintained an "intense, emotional" attachment to a married woman, to whom he addressed 350 intimate letters.
Stourton dug out the evidence in Poland's National Library, and few have doubted that this correspondence between Karol Wojtyla and Anna-Teresa Tymienecka represents something deeply "meaningful and personal", in the words of archivist Dr Eugene Kisluk. She wrote him that she "wanted desperately to be close to him" and he told her that "God gave you to me and made you my vocation". Although there is no evidence that the relationship was illicit - Anna-Teresa was married, with three children, and John Paul had taken a vow of celibacy - the evident depth and intensity of their connection has changed a public perception of the pontiff, who died in 2005, and was subsequently made a saint.
He was a man of flesh and blood! He yearned for intimacy, for love and closeness. He spent a summer with Anna-Teresa in Vermont, walking in woods and sitting by lakes, and even at the end of his life, that memory came back to him.
Is this a game changer in terms of the Catholic Church's doctrine upholding priestly celibacy, and, indeed, opposing divorce? It must be, for most observers, a distinct nudge in the direction of allowing priests to form close relationships and marry: a confirmation that the celibacy rule is by now archaic, and is depriving the Church of many good candidates for the priesthood.
It may also query the wisdom of having made John Paul a saint with "unseemly speed", as the distinguished historian Professor Eamon Duffy, put it. The Polish pope was made a saint within nine years of his demise (it took six centuries for Joan of Arc to be canonised, and she was burnt at the stake for her beliefs).
And it probably questions, once again, whether the Vatican is too anxious to hush up any "scandal", or potential scandal at the expense of truth. Ed Stourton claims in his report that the Holy See sought to airbrush Anna-Teresa out of the picture by not acknowledging her intellectual collaboration with Karol Wojtyla - she was a philosopher in her own right - and by seeking to downplay her role by calling her one friend among many, when in fact she was the most special friend. (Through her US connections - her husband was an influential economist who worked for the White House - she probably even helped to make Wojtyla Pope.)
Moreover, while the Pope's letters to Anna-Teresa have been disclosed, her letters to him are still kept under lock and key in Poland. She died two years ago, but the veteran journalist Carl Bernstein, who interviewed her, is certain that she would want her archive published. So far, that has not happened.
It's obvious from the photographs and the palpable affection between Anna-Teresa and John Paul - since their first meeting in 1973 - that there was an intense bond there. And yet, like all great love stories, the poignancy of the affair is that it is essentially about renunciation.
The great romances of history - Abelard and Heloise, Dante and Beatrice, even Romeo and Juliet - are tragedies, not happy-ever-after fairytales. It's the tragedy of not consummating a deep passion that makes such stories meaningful. He loved her, but in the words of one witness, "he struggled to retain control".
He gave her his most intimate - perhaps his only - possession: the scapular bequeathed to him by his dying father that he had always worn next to his heart. Her letters were "pearls" to him: when he was shot in 1981, she was one of the few intimates admitted to his hospital bedside.
One Polish ex-priest has wondered how John Paul could have been "so liberal and humane" in his letters to Anna-Teresa, and yet so conservative at a doctrinal level. But human beings are not all of a piece: they are made up of contradictions, and of struggles. Perhaps it is precisely because Pope John Paul "struggled to maintain control" that he advocated control.
This disclosure of this hidden part of his life will certainly change the image of John Paul II, from a sometimes flinty upholder of traditional absolutes to a man who cherished a deep love for a woman, even if that ardour remained physically unfulfilled.
It makes him seem more human; though it may confuse those who see him purely as a saint.
It is certainly a game changer in terms of the role a woman can play - and perhaps should play - in contributing to a pope's ideas, discourse and leadership.