Would "The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II" have been made if it concerned two men?

"it would have been lauded as an intellectual partnership"

February 16, 2016
U.S. President George W. Bush presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to John Paul II in June 2004, at the Vatican in Rome, Italy. ©
U.S. President George W. Bush presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to John Paul II in June 2004, at the Vatican in Rome, Italy. ©

U.S. President George W. Bush presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to John Paul II in June 2004, at the Vatican in Rome, Italy.

The BBC’s post-Valentine’s Day lineup has an unlikely hero: the late Pope John Paul II. The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II, presented by veteran broadcaster and practicing Catholic Edward Stourton, probes John Paul II's thirty-year friendship with a married woman. The BBC has trodden carefully, aware of the delicate subject matter. As it states on its website, almost as a disclaimer, the programme does not suggest that the relationship became physical.

The BBC caused a stir in Poland recently with an episode of Newsnight on whether the country is being "Putinised" by its new right-wing government, which has been criticised for its changes to the public media and constitutional tribunal. The Foreign Ministry responded with a seven-point letter of criticism, from the opening shots of the dark streets of Warsaw to alleged lack of context.

The Secret Letters is unlikely to shock. The programme treats its two lead figures with respect, while taking the feelings imbued in the letters seriously. When their friendship began in 1973, John Paul was Archbishop of Kraków and still went by the name Karol Wojtya. She was Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a Polish-born American philosopher, by then married to a Harvard-educated economist. Both were in their fifties. It started how it often does: she liked his book; later, they worked on one together. Formal letters gave way to a warm friendship that spanned over thirty years. They were photographed camping; him in shorts, she in a flowery skirt. He visited her at her country home in Vermont, and she him at the Vatican. Yet there was also doubt and vulnerability, the letters suggest.

The programme does at times speculate on the matter of celibacy, but it does not dwell on it. At the same time, one wonders whether the BBC would have bothered to make the programme had Tymieniecka been a man. A few people might have looked hard for clues of homosexuality. More likely, though, it would have been lauded as an intellectual partnership between two men and left at that.

Still, the programme touches on tensions in the late pope’s legacy. “I cannot understand why he was so conservative on the doctrinal level and so human, so liberal, so open on the personal level,” it quotes a Polish former Jesuit priest as saying. John Paul II was declared a saint in 2014, just nine years after he died. The BBC points out that his letters to Tymieniecka were not considered during the process, but suggests that they should have been. Meanwhile, voices in Poland and beyond have sought to downplay the significance of the correspondence. The pope had many friends, they say.

The closing scenes dwell on the writing and unwriting of history. The programme’s authors highlight that as soon as John Paul II died in April 2005, the process of removing Tymieniecka from his life began. As the case of the letters shows, it is not just a question of what sources have survived, but what one does with them. Tymieniecka sold her letters from John Paul II to Poland’s National Library in 2008, apparently for a seven-figure sum. It took an episode of Panorama for their contents to reach the wider public, even in Poland. As the BBC admits, it remains a one-sided story, in the sense that the producers did not have access to Tymieniecka’s letters. The National Library has been evasive about whether it has those too. The programme speculated this might have something to do with the canonisation process of the late Pope, who is being turned into a saint at what historian Eamon Duffy described as “unseemly” speed.

John Paul II became a global figure, but this is in many ways a Polish story. Both protagonists were Poles, the letters are in Poland, but it took British television producers to make a programme about them. Individual Poles might joke about the Secret Letters’ subject matter, yet in many ways the church in Poland remains above criticism (to some Catholics’ dismay). In a short statement before the programme was broadcast, Metropolitan of Kraków Cardinal Stanisaw Dziwisz, who served as the late pope’s secretary, wrote that “Who lived beside John Paul II knows well that in his life there is no space to look for evil.”

Nothing in the BBC’s thirty-minute programme suggests a search for evil, whatever that means. Rather, it offers a new lens on the “Polish Pope”, so familiar and yet unknown, and a broader reflection on love in its many guises.