Talk about strange. Under what circumstances is one of the most famous clips from the classic comedy "When Harry Met Sally" relevant to news reports about the life of a Roman Catholic saint who also was one of the most pivotal popes in church history? The scene features a rather blunt debate about whether men and women can be friends without having sex.
In this case, the scene is relevant because one gets the impression that some journalists in high places -- starting with the BBC -- are having trouble picturing a brilliant male philosopher-pope having a strong (we will return to this adjective question), multi-decade friendship with a brilliant, married female philosopher without it involving sex. Affection? That's another question.
The headline on one of the original BBC reports sets the stage: "The secret letters of Pope John Paul II." The key adjective is "secret," implying a secret relationship. Another BBC report used this headline: "Pope John Paul letters reveal 'intense' friendship with woman."
Vatican officials, however, note that this long friendship and, at times, professional partnership was know to those working with the Polish pope and to his biographers (even a Watergate veteran).
Here is the top of one of the BBC reports that started this mini-wave of news coverage:
Pope John Paul II was one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century, revered by millions and made a saint in record time, just nine years after he died. The BBC has seen letters he wrote to a married woman, the Polish-born philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, that shed new light on his emotional life.
Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka was a great hoarder, and she seems to have kept everything relating to her 32-year friendship with Saint John Paul. After her death, a huge cache of photographs was found among her possessions. We are used to seeing John Paul in formal papal clothing amid the grandeur of the Vatican, and yet here he is on the ski slopes, wearing shorts on a lake-side camping trip, and, in old age, entertaining privately in his rather sparse-looking living quarters.
Even more revealing is the archive of letters that Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka sold to the National Library of Poland in 2008. These were kept away from public view until they were shown to the BBC.
What about the sex question, since the headlines all stress the "secret" and even "intimate" nature of the relationship? At the very end of the first-person BBC report, reporter Ed Stourton states: "He was declared a saint in 2014, and nothing I have found would have been an obstacle to his canonisation."
At the same time, BBC stresses that the pope struggled to find the words to describe his concern and affection for a woman -- one of several women who were his close friends -- who may have, at one point, declared her love for him. The key word is "may." Note the wording in this crucial Stourton passage:
So the first hint of any real intimacy comes in a letter sent not from Krakow, but from Rome, where Cardinal Wojtyla spent more than a month attending a meeting of Catholic bishops in the autumn of 1974. He took several of her letters with him so that he could answer them "without using the mail", and writes that they are "so meaningful and deeply personal, even if they are written in philosophical 'code'".
Towards the end of the letter he adds that "there are issues which are too difficult for me to write about".
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. But 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 Wojtyla that she was in love with him.
Note: "Probably." The source and strength of this possible information? It is not cited.
The BBC story does note that John Paul II, at one point, responds to her with a crucial gift -- a devotional "scapular" symbolizing a constant call to prayer and piety. BBC describes this gift:
Devotional scapulars are formed of two tiny bits of cloth, worn next to the skin over the chest and back, designed to echo the full-length, apron-like garments which monks wear over their habits. Not many Catholics wear them now, but for centuries they were widely used as a symbol of commitment to the Christian life.
As you would expect, Catholic media -- such as the Catholic News Agency -- have written reports stressing (a) that the relationship was well known at the Vatican, (b) no one has suggested the pope broke his vow of celibacy and (c) the letters are not "secret," they just haven't been put on public display.
However, mainstream outlets have struggled to pick the right adjective to describe this friendship.
The Crux website ran a Washington Post report, adding this headline: "John Paul II letters reveal closeness with a married woman." What kind of closeness? The key word that is missing is "friendship." Here is the key material near the top of the story:
This week, however, an unexpected glimpse of the man beneath the white hat came from the BBC. In a new report, the network has shined a light on “secret letters” from John Paul II to a married woman that show an intense, if not necessarily inappropriate, friendship.
The lasting connection between the man once known only as Cardinal Karol Wojtyla and Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a Polish philosopher with three children, began in the 1970s. John Paul II died in 2005; Tymieniecka sold letters from him to her -- letters not made public until now -- to the National Library of Poland in 2008, and died in 2014.
And, whatever the nature of their acquaintance, John Paul II was extremely devoted to a woman he called “a gift from God.”
The Post report, however, does contain material from a very famous reporter who dug into the "intimate" questions at the heart of this story. This report also includes quotes from a crucial source -- Tymieniecka.
In a 1996 biography of the pontiff, former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi wrote that those looking for salacious details about John Paul II’s private life were on a fool’s errand.
Reporters have “scoured the earth looking for women who had been Karol Wojtyla’s lover, wife, or companion,” they wrote. “They found none because there were none.”
Bernstein repeated that claim in the BBC report. “We are talking about Saint John Paul,” he said. “This is an extraordinary relationship. … It’s not illicit, nonetheless it’s fascinating. It changes our perception of him.”
Bernstein and Politi also interviewed Tymieniecka for their biography. “I never fell in love with the cardinal,” she told them. “How could I fall in love with a middle-aged clergyman?”
But for the Post, this news had to be linked to other crucial questions -- linked to the status of "out" gay priests, sexual abuse by clergy and other moral issues. Thus, the report leaps all the way to this:
The revelations -- if they are properly classified as “revelations” -- about John Paul II also raised questions about whether he was canonized too quickly, particularly given his slow response to sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. ...
The BBC wondered whether the Vatican had seen all the evidence when considering canonization.
A report from Religion News Service, base on the BBC material, also went with "intimate" as the key adjective: "St. John Paul II’s letters to Polish-American woman reveal intimate friendship."
The New York Times, in a story that added reporting of its own, used this headline: "Letters From Pope John Paul II Show Deep Friendship With Woman."
The letters, according to the Times, show a "startling degree of affection."
“God gave you to me and made you my vocation,” read a letter dated March 31, 1976, one of several excerpts published on Monday by BBC News. He called her “a gift from God.”
The letters offer no evidence that the future pope -- who was known for his strict adherence to church doctrine on sexuality and marriage, and who was canonized in 2014 -- ever violated his vow of celibacy. But they do suggest a tension in the relationship between the married philosopher and the prelate.
“You write about being torn apart,” he wrote on Sept. 10, 1976. “I could find no answer to these words.” He added, “If I didn’t have this conviction, some moral certainty of grace, and of acting in obedience to it, I would not dare act like this.”
The word "vocation" is packed with theological content and I would love to know what Polish word was used in the original letter. The future pope and Tymieniecka met when she helped produce an English translation of one of his early books. John Paul II also knew her husband -- a Harvard University economist -- quite well and visited the whole family at their home.
So what is the larger journalism point? Without reading larger passages from the letters, it is impossible to know what the man who would become John Paul II meant when he used a word such as "vocation" to describe a close friendship. We do not know what kind of language he used in correspondence with other close friends, male and female.
In short, it is not shocking that this philosopher-pope had a professional relationship with a brilliant female philosopher that grew into a deep friendship. I do not even find it shocking, if she professed love for him, that he advised her to channel this into prayer and piety.
I am left with one practical, but rather symbolic, observation about one of the photos that is being used with these reports.
If you are going to use a photo showing St. John Paul II in a T-shirt and shorts (especially if one speculates that these are his boxer shorts) talking to a woman outside his tent, it would be appropriate to note that this was during an outing by a larger group of people. This was not an "intimate" getaway for a couple using the one tent in the photo.
In other words, this BBC photo caption is quite inadequate: "Cardinal Wojtyla and Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka on a camping trip in 1978."
Let's hope for additional reports on the substance of these letters.