Monday, 15 February 2016

Pope John Paul II: The Secret Letters

I suspect that tonight's BBC Panorama programme will be something of a non-story. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka and Wanda Poltawska (along with her husband, Andrez) were among Karol Wojtyla's closest academic collaborators. The former's English translation of The Acting Person has been criticised for presenting the thought of the original of the second Polish edition in a way that reduces the metaphysical content of the person who is the subject of action in favour of a more strongly phenomenological interpretation. The collaboration also appears to have extended to include Anna-Teresa's husband, who advised Pope John Paull II on economic matters, his area of academic expertise. Wanda Poltawska collaborated in the leadership of an institute for the family in Krakow, and afterwards in consultation with Pope John Paul II in Rome.

At heart, they are professional, academic collaborations. And that offers two points of context. It is not unusual for academics, visiting an overseas country for a conference, to stay as house guests of faculty of the academic institutions who have invited them. And the academic field that was/is phenomenology is characterised by a closeness of friendships arising from these collaborations that is very particular. As I write, I have, for example, just read the text of a letter from Edith Stein to her baptismal sponsor, Hedwig Conrad-Martius, written just after Edith's entry into Cologne Carmel. It was whilst staying at the Conrad-Martius' during a vacation that Edith read St Teresa's Life; but the close personal friendship between them began through their shared academic circle. There is nothing untoward in the thought that they would spend holidays together - Edith and her friends would go out for country walks, somewhat analogous to Karol Wojytla's camping holidays with his friends and collaborators.

To characterise or headline the correspondence as being "secret letters between Pope John Paul II and a married woman" therefore contains a suggestion that is somewhat misleading. As part of the BBC's own website coverage indicates:
Carl Bernstein, the veteran investigative journalist of Watergate fame, was the first writer to get some sense of Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka's importance in John Paul's life. He interviewed her for the book His Holiness in the 1990s.
"We are talking about Saint John Paul. This is an extraordinary relationship," he says. "It's not illicit, nonetheless it's fascinating. It changes our perception of him."
The BBC website coverage ahead of the Panorama programme is here and here. It is interesting to note that Ed Stourton admits that his suggestion that Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka declared that she had fallen in love with Karol Wojtyla/Pope John Paul II is speculation on his part, his reading into the latter's letters what might have been in Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka's side of the correspondence (not seen by the BBC). According to a Guardian report, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka denied any romantic involvement with John Paul II; and a Vatican source has observed that the forthcoming programme is "more smoke than fire". Ed Stourton is very clear that nothing that he has discovered would have been a barrier to Pope John Paul II's canonisation.

I wonder whether, more than anything else, the letters will offer a model of what constitutes friendship and communion of persons for others to follow. For a generation characterised by the "relationship" that is fluid and without anything of objective permanence, a testimony of permanent friendship (and the nature of the person, and how persons enter into communion with each other, was a key concern of the particular phenomenological circle in which Karol Wojtyla, Edith Stein and the others moved) from this earlier generation might have something to offer. There might well be a PhD for someone in that particular study. The photographs accompanying the BBC coverage are perhaps interesting in this regard, too.

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