British newspaper The Telegraph‘s sensationalist headline read: “Did Pope John Paul II fall in love with married American academic? BBC to investigate.” The headline referred to the BBC program “Panorama,” which aired on Monday, February 15, 2015. The program, which is now difficult to view online outside of the UK, was described in a BBC News report, “The secret letters of Pope John Paul II.” Media in the United States followed with their own only slightly less shocking headlines.
The New York Times: “Letters From Pope John Paul II Show Deep Friendship With Woman”
The Washington Post: “John Paul II ‘secret letters’ reveal connection to married woman he called ‘a gift from God’”
The Washington Post report was somewhat more balanced than the others, but almost every single Internet-age media, including The Washington Post, got the essence of the story completely wrong. They chose to focus on the non-existent sensational aspect rather than the real person John Paul II was as a religious leader and the real nature of his relationships with not just one but many significant women in his life, including the late Professor Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.
I wrote about it in my book: “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church.” I interviewed Cardinal Karol Wojtyła in 1976 and met with him twice after he became pope in 1978. I interviewed Dr. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka in 2007.
I am not an uncritical judge of John Paul II. My book focused on some of his views on women and feminism which I do not share. But based on my extensive research and many interviews, I have no doubt that he was a great man whose life was without any major scandal that I or anybody else could find. Ironically, these recent media reports unintentionally tend to perpetuate an old provocation which the communist secret police in Poland had resorted to because they could not find anything compromising in his life. I’ll describe the provocation later. I would have to agree with George Weigel, a semi-official biographer of John Paul II (I was not; I worked independently had no special access to the pope or the Vatican.) who has called the frenzy spawned by the BBC a “tempest in a teapot.” The BBC documentary reveals nothing really new about John Paul, but “it does tell us something about the decline of the BBC as a source of serious television reporting,” George Weigel was quoted as saying.
There was no romance, no secret love affair, nothing sordid or unusual about Dr. Tymieniecka’s relationship with Pope John Paul II. He was a deeply carying man, but he had a mind well above such things. Pope John Paul II was preoccupied with much greater issues: religion, human dignity, human rights, communism, and Poland. Dr. Tymieniecka was one of his several women-collaborators. Dr. Wanda Półtawska in Poland played an even larger role in his life. A former Nazi concentration camp prisoner and a victim of Nazi medial experiments on women, Dr. Półtawska was also married. Cardinal Wojtyła was close friends with both Dr. Półtawska and her husband, as he was with Dr. Tymieniecka and her husband, Harvard economics professor Dr. Hendrik Houthakker (1924-2008), a Dutch-born Jew who spent time in a Nazi internment camp. He and Dr. Tymieniecka remained married for 52 years, up to his death. Her husband also became Karol Wojtyła’s friend.
I interviewed Cardinal Wojtyła in 1976, before he became pope, shortly after he visited Professor Tymieniecka at her home in Vermont. The interview I conducted for the Voice of America (VOA) showed what really mattered to future Pope John Paul II. He spoke beautifully and profoundly about love, but he spoke about it in religious, philosophical and in a subtle way in political terms.
CARDINAL KAROL WOJTYLA (1976): “The need to raise awareness about this issue [hunger], which is basic for many so-called underdeveloped societies, is especially present in America, in this perhaps the richest nation in the world. … The problem of hunger is as we can see the problem of justice for the entire human family. … Together with this basic hunger–if one could use this expression–go other types of hunger of today’s Man, equally great and equally deeply felt by various societies, by different groups, and finally by individuals. … The Hunger for Liberty, The Hunger for Truth, The Hunger for Understanding, The Hunger for Love. To all of these hungers of today’s Man, the Eucharist provides a final dimension: Man hungers for God. His heart is unsettled without Him.”
His expressions: “The Hunger for Liberty” and “The Hunger for Truth” were clear references to Poland and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe under communism and Soviet domination. “The Hunger for Daily Bread,” “The Problem of Justice,” and “The Hunger for Love” were a veiled criticism of the materialistic West. This was the real Karol Wojtyla, not someone who is preoccupied with either seeking or avoiding a romantic relationship with a married Polish-American woman.
In the 1970s, Dr. Tymieniecka helped Cardinal Wojtyła translate his philosophical book “Osoba i czyn” (“The Acting Person”), also translated as (“Person and Act”). In “The Acting Person,” Wojtyła concentrated on the significance and the dignity of work and participation in public life. He had observed the exploitation of workers by the communist system and wanted to counter the Marxist philosophy with his own view of work as providing worth and dignity to the individual. By that time, he had also developed a strong dislike of the capitalist system as he understood it to function in the West. The book, written from a phenomenological perspective, a branch of philosophy that stresses the importance of experience, caught the attention of Dr. Tymieniecka, a Polish-born aristocratic woman, at the time a philosophy lecturer at St. John’s University in New York. She visited Cardinal Wojtyła in Kraków in July 1973 and offered to edit and translate his book into English. Cardinal Wojtyła agreed, and for several years he and Dr. Tymieniecka became intellectual partners, exchanging letters and visits while she worked on the English translation of his book. Dr. Tymieniecka and Wojtyła communicated by letters and spent many hours together discussing his views during the four years of their collaboration on getting the book published in English. While on a visit to the U.S. in 1976, Cardinal Wojtyła stayed with Dr. Tymieniecka and her husband; she also visited him in Kraków and in Rome and helped to organize a number of speaking engagements for him in the West.
Before John Paul’s first papal trip to the United States in 1979, Dr. Tymieniecka visited him at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo and discussed with him his proposed speeches. Dr. Tymieniecka told me in 2007 that she did not review the texts of papal speeches but held discussions with John Paul II about what kind of messages would resonate well with Americans. She confirmed that his initial ideas, which his conservative Polish friends had suggested, were way off the mark as far as the realities of life in the United States were concerned. But she said that she had managed to talk John Paul II into making drastic changes in his speeches to Americans and was gratified to hear that he had taken her advice.
Dr. Tymieniecka takes partial credit for some of John Paul II’s first words on American soil after his arrival in Boston on October 1, 1979, where he said that he came “with sentiments of friendship, reverence and esteem” and “as one who already knows you and loves you.” According to her, these words set the tone for his first apostolic visit to the United States but could have been much different if the pope had accepted the advice of his conservative Polish friends. Dr. Tymieniecka told me that while John Paul II’s initial views about America may have been uninformed, she said that this was quite normal at that time for any person living in communist Poland. She also told me that she not only had persuaded the pope to adopt a more moderate tone in speaking to Americans during his first visit in 1979, but that in subsequent years his opinions of Americans, American society and the American Catholic Church became drastically more positive.
However, my own analysis of John Paul II’s later speeches to Americans shows a definite trend toward a much more critical attitude of the American society and the West in general. Dr. Tymieniecka and her husband tried to introduce Wojtyła to the American way of life during his two visits in the 1970s to their house in Vermont and to persuade him that not everything in America was immoral and decadent.
Judging by the pope’s later statements addressed to Americans, his comments about the American society and his views of capitalism, their efforts were less than successful. But in an interview with me, Dr. Tymieniecka strongly disputed this assessment. She insisted that while Wojtyła’s initial view of America may have been quite negative, probably as a result of the lack of sufficient contacts with Americans and misinformed opinions of some of his conservative Polish friends, her numerous conversations with him, as well as his other encounters with Americans, eventually turned him into a great admirer of America and American Catholicism. According to her, John Paul II became greatly impressed by the intellectual quality of American priests and by American spirit of voluntarism. She even suggested that John Paul II saw the future of the Catholic Church largely in America, meaning both North and South.
She did admit, however, that during his visit to the United States in 1976 Wojtyła tended to gravitate toward conservative American priests and Catholic intellectuals and was quite taken by their old school conservative activism. At one point, Dr. Tymieniecka questioned some of what other papal biographers Jonathan Kwitny, Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi had written about conversations she and her husband had with John Paul II. She described their versions of what she had told them as not entirely consistent with what she meant to convey, but in my conversation with her I did not get an impression that their reports were substantially wrong. She conceded to me that John Paul II had a very negative view of the West’s materialistic culture but insisted that he did not think the United States was the worst among Western nations. In her view, in later years John Paul II had high hopes for America and began to realize that Americans are very religious. She also conceded that some of the pope’s later statements, which had been highly critical of the U.S., were probably written for him by American bishops.
Dr. Tymieniecka believes that Wojtyła’s conservative Polish friends, including Dr. Wanda Półtawska who tried to influence his views about the United States, had a very limited knowledge of life in America. Dr. Tymieniecka had been friends with Dr. Wanda Półtawska’s husband and visited the couple in Kraków before Dr. Półtawski questioned her translation of Wojtyła’s book, which caused a temporary rift in her friendship with John Paul II. They eventually reconciled.
Of the two women, Dr. Wanda Półtawska had a much closer professional relationship with the pope. As a psychiatrist, she was his primary advisor in Poland on women’s issues and natural methods of birth control. Her own experiences as a medial “human guinea pig” at the Nazi Ravensbrück concentration camp and her work after the war as a psychiatrist with Auschwitz survivors turned her into a strong opponent of abortion, which she viewed as the mass murder of the innocent. According to some Polish sources, she had provided Cardinal Wojtyła with her analysis of birth control issues, which he reportedly shared with Pope Paul VI. According to some Polish sources, some of Dr. Półtawska’s analysis was incorporated into Pope Paul VI’s anti-contraception encyclical Humanae vitae (1968), which alienated millions of Catholic women, but which Pope John Paul II always strongly supported while also trying with Dr. Półtawska’s help to teach Polish women natural birth control methods in centers established his old archdiocese.
Dr. Tymieniecka, who did not share all of John Paul’s ideas on birth control (she agreed with him on most other moral and religious issues) told me that it would have been very unlikely Cardinal Wojtyła would have passed on to Pope Paul VI Dr. Półtawska’s materials on birth control. She conceded that he might have discussed the issue with Dr. Półtawska and that she was certainly actively involved in running his birth control and marriage counseling programs, but as a serious scholar—according to Dr. Tymieniecka—he would have reached out to a number of academic experts before submitting any written materials to Paul VI. But since she admitted that she had not discussed this topic with Wojtyła and was not interested in it, the accounts of Dr. Półtawska’s crucial involvement with Paul VI’s birth control encyclical still seem highly credible. However, Dr. Tymieniecka’s observation that Dr. Półtawska would not have been the only person consulted by Wojtyła on this issue is true. She was only one of several members of the commission established by Wojtyła in Kraków to advise him on the birth control controversy, but her access to him and her influence were significant.
My conclusion was that Wojtyła’s personal relationship with Dr. Tymieniecka, a Polish woman who grew up in the West, apparently did not change much his opinions about the West or Western women. Dr. Tymieniecka admitted to me that her conversations with Cardinal Wojtyła and later Pope John Paul II did not focus at all on feminism. She also told me that she had never discussed with Wojtyła at any length the subject of human sexuality. She did say that as a female academic in the U.S. in the early 1960s she was one of the initial supporters of the feminist movement, although she quickly became disillusioned by feminist attacks on religion and their views on moral issues. Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi suggest that there may have been sexual attraction between the two, which both of them had sublimated, but Dr. Tymieniecka told them that falling in love with a middle-aged priest would have been inconceivable for her as a married Catholic woman.
As for Wojtyła, there is nothing we know about his life that would even remotely suggest any attitude toward women other than one of reverence, warm, non-sexual affection and total respect. Dr. Tymieniecka was one of many women who told me this was indeed John Paul II’s entire attitude. She recalled a conversation she had with Wojtyła in 1974 in Naples, Italy, where he impressed her by his thoughtful analysis of the role of women in religion. She remembered him telling her that in many respects women are superior to men and gave the example of Mary Magdalene who was the first to see the risen Christ and was chosen by him to be the messenger of his resurrection to the male disciples. She said that she has always been impressed by Wojtyła’s respect for women. When Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka learned of the pope’s final illness, she flew to Rome and was there when John Paul II died on April 2, 2005. She would not say whether she saw the pope shortly before he died. Dr. Półtawska was present at his death.
In a book published in 2006, Polish journalist Marek Lasota reported that in 1983 the secret police unit in Kraków created a fictitious diary made to look as if it had been written by middle-aged Polish widow Irena Kinaszewska. She worked for the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny and was employed by Wojtyła to organize his letters and documents. The Archbishop apparently gave her this job to earn some extra income, as she was a single mother raising a young son. Police agents planted the diary in the apartment of Wojtyła’s friend Father Andrzej Bardecki (1916-2001). The plan was to find the diary during a subsequent police search of Father Bardecki’s apartment and leak it to the media in order to embarrass John Paul II. Two female secret police agents managed to place the diary in Father Bardecki’s apartment during his absence by distracting his elderly housekeeper. After this successful operation, the agents got drunk and were involved in a major car accident. Their plan, however, was thwarted when the woman in charge of Father Bardecki’s apartment alerted him to the unusual visit by unknown individuals. Suspecting a secret police action, the priest searched his apartment, found the diary and destroyed it. A police search of his apartment two days later turned up nothing. Several years before this incident, Father Bardecki had been severely beaten by unknown assailants. He became nearly unconscious and required hospitalization. The beating of the cardinal’s friend may have been a warning from the secret police and the communist regime that they were unhappy with Wojtyła. After Father Bardecki’s death in 2001, Pope John Paul II wrote that his friend gained respect of “the generation which had struggled with the lie of the ideology aimed against God and man.”
The reality of life in communist-ruled Poland and Cardinal Wojtyła’s daily concerns were quite different than what most media presented with their phony “love story.” Had there been any real romantic affairs with women during Wojtyła’s years as a priest and bishop in Poland, the communist secret police, who kept him under close surveillance, would have probably known about them and would not have had to resort to forgery, provocations and assaults on Catholic priests. Communist regime officers and agents even inquired about such things as to who was buying his underwear, but they were never able to find anything compromising about Karol Wojtyła’s personal behavior.