Pope John Paul II's Correspondences: Saintly or Scandalous?

BBC has just aired a documentary entitled Secret Letters of John Paul II by Ed Stourton.  The film analyzes the story of friendship of John Paul II with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka Houthakker on the basis of their 32-year-long correspondence.

The author of the documentary is mainly interested in whether the pope had a love affair with the woman.  He was frustrated in his effort by lack of evidence.  Mr. Stourton had access only to the letters that Pope John Paul II wrote to Mrs. Tymieniecka Houthakker.  As a result, he mostly speculates on the content of her letters to the pope.  The thesis is clear, and for lack of any material evidence, the journalist authoritatively presents his own vision of the past instead.

According to Stourton's imagination, Anna-Teresa told Cardinal Wojtyla in a letter that she was in love with him.  And so the epistolary relationship continued for 30 years, with her visiting him in Rome under the pretext of scholarly meetings and him visiting her and her family in Pomfret when on a visit to the U.S.  The narrative is intertwined with comments of a former seminarian and a former Jesuit priest (presently married) on the nature of celibacy and problems it may present.  Other people analyzing the friendship of John Paul II and Mrs. Tymieniecka Houthakker share Mr. Stourton's conviction about the amorous nature of their relationship, Platonic as it may have been.

As a result, a certain bias of the film emerges.  However, those who are not fixated on the problems the requirement of celibacy may create to Catholic priests may see quite a different story behind it – the friendship of a strong-willed woman and a saintly man.  Born in an aristocratic family in Poland, she grew up and survived the Second World War there.  Before moving to the U.S, she studied philosophy in Poland, Switzerland, and France with the greatest specialists in the field of phenomenology. She held two Ph.D.s in philosophy, from the University of Fribourg and from the Sorbonne.  She married late for her times – at the age of 33.  Certainly she was an interesting personality, attractive to men not only because she was a pretty representative of the opposite sex.

As we may deduce from various impressions of witnesses in the film, Mrs. Tymieniecka Houthakker was an independent spirit used to exercising her own will.  It is evidenced by the fact that she came to communist Poland especially to meet Karol Wojtyla, whose philosophy had impressed her.  As a holder of a Western passport, she did not seem to encounter any problems to return to her native country in the 1970s.  She did develop problems, however, in her scholarly cooperation with Karol Wojtyla.

Her English translation of the pope's book suggests as well what kind of personality she was.  Despite personal friendship, John Paul II questioned her work because she subtly distorted his ideas in accordance with her philosophical approach.  Those small facts give us hints as to what her character might have been – strong, passionate, perhaps a little egocentric.  Was she an important friend of John Paul II?  Probably.  Was she the only such friend?  Not at all.

As a priest, Cardinal Wojtyla has been especially interested in the issues relating to moral choices, morality, marriage, and the protection of life.  He is the author of the Theology of the Body, which was the first great issue he discussed during his pontificate.  Throughout his life, he was working on those topics with scholars, men and women, to form ideas and lead the Catholic Church.

His other lifelong friend and a fellow scholar was Wanda Poltawska.  Not only did he correspond all his life with her, but she was also present by his deathbed.  A psychiatrist and a former Nazi concentration camp inmate at Ravensbrück, she discussed with him the matters of morality and personal accountability of a human being for his deeds.  She greatly contributed to his work on family and marriage.  Her professional scholarly work focused on family and went hand in hand with his teaching.  She actively supported and cooperated with him to spread his vision of "the civilization of life."  This friendship was a source of inspiration for John Paul's teaching, too.

The documentary of Mr. Stourton presents a version of events absolutely in line with contemporary times.  Quick intimacy and shallow relationships seem to set the standard.  This standard is to be applicable equally to everyone, including the clergy, making any contact with a woman a suspicious and dangerous thing for a priest.  As a historian of the Church commenting on the friendship in the documentary assumed: "the idea that a pope had a woman friend must have been appalling to his entourage."  I find those comments truly paradoxical in the era of women's liberation.  The assumption that two adult and mature people of opposite sexes cannot exchange opinions and thoughts or meet from time to time without sexual interest is degrading.

Are men and women capable of establishing relationships with the representatives of the opposite exclusively for the reason of mating?  Is mating the only reason for which we talk to one another, spend time together, and enjoy one another's company?  Humans are social beings, and the drive to establish relationships is one of the basic human drives.  We do not lose those drives when we get married.  We do not lose them when we become priests.  We just continue living and meeting others.  At the same time, we respect the unique relationship we have with our spouse or with God, depending on the vocation.

This spiritual dimension of marriage and priesthood is entirely ignored by the author of the documentary.  Digging through the piles of "secret" correspondence, he fails to see John Paul II for who every saint is – a man striving for virtue in a more effective way than most of us.

Maria Juczewska is an assistant with the Kosciuszko chair in Polish studies at the Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC., www.iwp.edu.

BBC has just aired a documentary entitled Secret Letters of John Paul II by Ed Stourton.  The film analyzes the story of friendship of John Paul II with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka Houthakker on the basis of their 32-year-long correspondence.

The author of the documentary is mainly interested in whether the pope had a love affair with the woman.  He was frustrated in his effort by lack of evidence.  Mr. Stourton had access only to the letters that Pope John Paul II wrote to Mrs. Tymieniecka Houthakker.  As a result, he mostly speculates on the content of her letters to the pope.  The thesis is clear, and for lack of any material evidence, the journalist authoritatively presents his own vision of the past instead.

According to Stourton's imagination, Anna-Teresa told Cardinal Wojtyla in a letter that she was in love with him.  And so the epistolary relationship continued for 30 years, with her visiting him in Rome under the pretext of scholarly meetings and him visiting her and her family in Pomfret when on a visit to the U.S.  The narrative is intertwined with comments of a former seminarian and a former Jesuit priest (presently married) on the nature of celibacy and problems it may present.  Other people analyzing the friendship of John Paul II and Mrs. Tymieniecka Houthakker share Mr. Stourton's conviction about the amorous nature of their relationship, Platonic as it may have been.

As a result, a certain bias of the film emerges.  However, those who are not fixated on the problems the requirement of celibacy may create to Catholic priests may see quite a different story behind it – the friendship of a strong-willed woman and a saintly man.  Born in an aristocratic family in Poland, she grew up and survived the Second World War there.  Before moving to the U.S, she studied philosophy in Poland, Switzerland, and France with the greatest specialists in the field of phenomenology. She held two Ph.D.s in philosophy, from the University of Fribourg and from the Sorbonne.  She married late for her times – at the age of 33.  Certainly she was an interesting personality, attractive to men not only because she was a pretty representative of the opposite sex.

As we may deduce from various impressions of witnesses in the film, Mrs. Tymieniecka Houthakker was an independent spirit used to exercising her own will.  It is evidenced by the fact that she came to communist Poland especially to meet Karol Wojtyla, whose philosophy had impressed her.  As a holder of a Western passport, she did not seem to encounter any problems to return to her native country in the 1970s.  She did develop problems, however, in her scholarly cooperation with Karol Wojtyla.

Her English translation of the pope's book suggests as well what kind of personality she was.  Despite personal friendship, John Paul II questioned her work because she subtly distorted his ideas in accordance with her philosophical approach.  Those small facts give us hints as to what her character might have been – strong, passionate, perhaps a little egocentric.  Was she an important friend of John Paul II?  Probably.  Was she the only such friend?  Not at all.

As a priest, Cardinal Wojtyla has been especially interested in the issues relating to moral choices, morality, marriage, and the protection of life.  He is the author of the Theology of the Body, which was the first great issue he discussed during his pontificate.  Throughout his life, he was working on those topics with scholars, men and women, to form ideas and lead the Catholic Church.

His other lifelong friend and a fellow scholar was Wanda Poltawska.  Not only did he correspond all his life with her, but she was also present by his deathbed.  A psychiatrist and a former Nazi concentration camp inmate at Ravensbrück, she discussed with him the matters of morality and personal accountability of a human being for his deeds.  She greatly contributed to his work on family and marriage.  Her professional scholarly work focused on family and went hand in hand with his teaching.  She actively supported and cooperated with him to spread his vision of "the civilization of life."  This friendship was a source of inspiration for John Paul's teaching, too.

The documentary of Mr. Stourton presents a version of events absolutely in line with contemporary times.  Quick intimacy and shallow relationships seem to set the standard.  This standard is to be applicable equally to everyone, including the clergy, making any contact with a woman a suspicious and dangerous thing for a priest.  As a historian of the Church commenting on the friendship in the documentary assumed: "the idea that a pope had a woman friend must have been appalling to his entourage."  I find those comments truly paradoxical in the era of women's liberation.  The assumption that two adult and mature people of opposite sexes cannot exchange opinions and thoughts or meet from time to time without sexual interest is degrading.

Are men and women capable of establishing relationships with the representatives of the opposite exclusively for the reason of mating?  Is mating the only reason for which we talk to one another, spend time together, and enjoy one another's company?  Humans are social beings, and the drive to establish relationships is one of the basic human drives.  We do not lose those drives when we get married.  We do not lose them when we become priests.  We just continue living and meeting others.  At the same time, we respect the unique relationship we have with our spouse or with God, depending on the vocation.

This spiritual dimension of marriage and priesthood is entirely ignored by the author of the documentary.  Digging through the piles of "secret" correspondence, he fails to see John Paul II for who every saint is – a man striving for virtue in a more effective way than most of us.

Maria Juczewska is an assistant with the Kosciuszko chair in Polish studies at the Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC., www.iwp.edu.