BBC Program Part of Predictable Lenten Attacks on the Church

Screenshot from Panorama program — YouTube
Screenshot from Panorama program — YouTube (photo: Screenshot)

A program shown on British television Monday night about Pope St. John Paul II’s close relationship with a married Polish-born American woman has been swiftly dismissed as old news and criticized for showing little understanding of priestly celibacy.

The BBC Panorama program, The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II, examined “letters and photographs” of the late Pope to American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka to whom he showed deep affection. They were close friends for over 30 years.

The Vatican said it came as “no great revelation that Pope John Paul II had deep friendships with a number of people, men and women alike” and that it is known he had close friendships both with Tymieniecka and Polish psychiatrist, Dr. Wanda Poltawska, who also had extensive correspondence with John Paul II.

The BBC itself admitted “there is no suggestion the Pope broke his vow of celibacy” but played up the story by saying Tymieniecka had “intense feelings” for him “because his letters immediately afterwards suggest a man struggling to make sense of their friendship in Christian terms.”  

Writing in National Review, John Paul II’s biographer, George Weigel, dismissed the program’s insinuations, saying that the late pope “channeled his passions, including the strength of his friendships, into a priesthood of service to others”, enabling him to change the course of world history “in a more humane direction.”

Such an understanding of celibacy is “alas, incomprehensible to those — including, it appears, senior figures at the BBC — who seemingly cannot think of celibacy as anything other than repression in the service of clerical power.”

He also said it was precisely these kind of friendships, “lived in an intimacy that was not sexual but was quite real” that helped John Paul give a “fresh new articulation to the ethics of love and responsibility.” He added that the program is “a BBC tempest in a teapot” that “tells us something about the decline” of the broadcaster.

Although the motives behind the program may merely have been to show John Paul II's "more human side", the BBC, and especially its flagship documentary Panorama program, have long displayed an anti-Catholic bias. And most of those commenting in Monday's documentary have a history of dissenting from Church teaching. 

This latest program is being seen as a further media attack on the Church, something that has become usual during Lent and which, in this particular instance, has just as predictably taken the form of criticism of the Church's priestly celibacy rule.