The Emotional Affair of John Paul II

A couple of years before he became Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla wrote to a Polish woman: “God gave you to me and made you my vocation.” The letter was one of more than 700 saved letters between he and Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a Polish-American philosopher he met in 1973. The year before Wojtyla’s letter, Anna-Teresa had supposedly written that “she desired to be in his arms and remain there in happiness.” He gave her a scapular he had received from his father at his first communion. She sent him pressed flowers and photographs from her home. Their deeply intimate relationship lasted his lifetime, continuing as she read to him on his deathbed. The whole time she was married to Harvard economist Hendrik Houthakker.

According to reporter Ed Stourton, the letters suggest that John Paul always kept his vow of celibacy. But some, including Professor Eamon Duffy, criticize such emotional intimacy as “extremely unjust to the other partner [Anna-Teresa’s husband] who is being deprived of that kind of intensity with their spouse.” Wojtyla also admits of tension in writing about Anna-Teresa’s “being torn apart” by her feelings for him. Though he “could find no answer to these words,” “some moral certainty of grace” moved him to continue the relationship. Still, John Paul might be criticized for persevering in what many call an “emotional affair.”

Such an “affair” among respected Catholics is not unique to John Paul. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, Dante Alighieri wrote several Sonnets for and perhaps hundreds of pages about Florence’s beautiful Beatrice, though his wife’s name was Gemma. Gemma goes unmentioned in his works.

If we’re concerned about emotional adultery, it’s odd how highly praised Dante’s “Comedy” finds itself among even theologians. Dante’s treatment of Beatrice borders on obsession, and he maintains his devotion to her even after his marriage to another woman. It’s far afield from the calculating, judiciously circumscribed and psychiatrically prescribed extramarital loves of middle-class Christian millennials. Dante decided at the age of nine that Beatrice was the “youngest of the angels,” and in some ways she bore this image in “The Comedy,” completed a year before his death. Dante’s extreme fixation may have made Beatrice into more than an object of affection, but, rather, a lens through which he came to view everything, even the journey to the “Paradiso.”

If not sexual in the modern sense, Dante’s love for Beatrice and John Paul’s love for Anna-Teresa were certainly erotic in the classical sense, in a developed sense of Plato’s “eros” and Dante’s own “amore.” I suspect that part of the modern frustration felt for the forgotten spouses comes from the disjunction between the classical and the modern erotic. This frustration may have culminated in the west’s enshrinement of same-sex intimacy into the institution of marriage. There’s a stigma towards extramarital erotic intimacy that drives all erotic intimacy towards, and demands all erotic intimacy within, marriage. There’s a relationship between Professor Duffy’s comments and Obergefell vs. Hodges, in regulating emotional intimacy just as strictly as sex.

A recent BBC documentary on John Paul’s letters suggests some sort of Vatican conspiracy to cover up the “emotional affair” of John Paul the Great. This is unclear. Regardless, it is quite odd that Anna-Teresa was barely mentioned in his biographies — only once in George Weigel’s biography, in a footnote — and that the National Library of Poland refuses to publicly release his letters or share any letters written by her.

This tendency to downplay or hide certain aspects of the late pope’s intimacy mirror in many ways the tendency to gloss over certain aspects of his ascetic life. This isn’t surprising, certainly not more surprising than glossing over anti-Catholic views of politicians in awarding them an award for “outstanding service to the Church.” Sometimes we choose to honor half a man (or half of two men), because it’s easier to write a consistent narrative of life and politics and honor if we turn a blind eye to the contradictions.

Professor John Cavadini frequently says that “the saints are the people who stretch our imagination, because they interpret the mystery of the faith through the medium of their lives.” If John Paul the Great really is a saint, then his life and love are an interpretive key to both the Gospel and his own Theology of the Body. And they are worth not only admiration, but also imitation.

No letters suggest he violated his commitments as a priest, and he held Anna-Teresa’s husband in high esteem. He is a man who challenges us, but he is a man of integrity, not simply a politician, but a coherent and un-fragmented whole. Melinda Selmys writes that he “blazed a trail” for the pursuit of love. The question is whether and how we can follow it.

This column was published in The Observer on Thursday, March 31, 2016.

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