On Monday, the BBC aired a “documentary” called The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II, suggesting a possible lack of propriety in the revered late pontiff’s friendships with women over the years, and especially with a married colleague, the Polish philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.
The documentary by Edward Stourton, loosely based on a cache of letters from John Paul to Tymieniecka that convey a deep friendship but nothing even remotely sexual, has sparked a flurry of prurient speculation about the Pope, with steamy titles like “Did John Paul II Fall in Love with Married American Academic? BBC to Investigate” and “Did Pope John Paul II Have a Secret Lover?”
Despite talk of the late pope’s “secret relationships with women,” there is nothing in the documentary that is either new or secret, according to papal biographer George Weigel, who has called the frenzy spawned by the BBC a “tempest in a teapot.”
Weigel, who wrote the best-selling biography of John Paul, Witness to Hope, says that the BBC documentary reveals 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.”
The Vatican has likewise dismissed the documentary as “more smoke than fire,” since it is common knowledge that Karol Wojtyla—Pope John Paul—had close relationships with women, but that he always lived them in a respectful and priestly way.
“It was known that he was friendly with Tymieniecka and Poltawska,” according to one Vatican official, in reference to the Polish psychologist Wanda Poltawska, another friend of the Pope’s.
Poltawska published a memoir in 2009 that included detailed correspondence between herself and John Paul II, who died in 2005.
In 2011, the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, stated that Poltawska “became a perfect consultant for problems of family and sexuality which Wojtyla considered some of the most urgent that the church of his time needed to address.”
Tymieniecka herself, who helped the future pope with an early English translation of Wojtyla’s major work, Person and Act, denied any romantic imbroglio with Wojtyla, saying that their relationship was merely “mutually affectionate.” She declared: “How could I fall in love with a middle-aged clergyman?”
“That Karol Wojtyla had many friendships, including close friendships, with women has been well known for decades and ought hardly be surprising,” Weigel writes.
So rather than telling us something new about Saint John Paul, Weigel says, the BBC documentary “illuminates the misconceptions under which too much secular journalism operates when writing about the Catholic Church, its clergy, and celibacy,” missing a precious opportunity to explore how true friendship can shape individuals and their thinking and action.
Instead, he insists, Stourton takes Wojtyla’s letters to Tymieniecka and “throws them into the Freudian Mixmaster,” suggesting that the correspondence should “change our perceptions of John Paul II.”
“To which any person truly knowledgeable about John Paul II would say, ‘Rubbish,’” he writes.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome