On the celibacy of St. John Paul II

On the celibacy of St. John Paul II

During his 26-year papacy, St. John Paul II visited 40 of Africa's 53 nations and convened a Vatican Synod of Bishops for Africa.

With the recent revelations of St. John Paul II’s close relationship with a married woman, the philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, many commentators are wondering whether we need to revise our understanding of Karol Wojtyła the man. Barbara Latza Nadeau, writing in The Daily Beast, asks the question surely on many people’s

With the recent revelations of St. John Paul II’s close relationship with a married woman, the philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, many commentators are wondering whether we need to revise our understanding of Karol Wojtyła the man.

Barbara Latza Nadeau, writing in The Daily Beast, asks the question surely on many people’s minds: “Did John Paul II have a secret lover?” Nadeau surveys the evidence: Tymienieka denied that she fell in love with Wojtyła, while others acknowledge there was a relationship between the two that was, at the very least, emotionally quite intimate. For his part, John Paul’s former personal secretary, Stanisław Dziwisz, is having none of the speculation, saying, “Those who lived at the side of John Paul II know well that there is no place in his life to search for evil.”

The temptation when thinking about someone like Karol Wojtyła — priest, pope, and saint — is oscillating between the extremes of thinking that he was either all-too-human or more than human: either he violated his vow of celibacy or he didn’t, according our own very limited preconceptions of what each would entail.

I would suggest that Karol Wojtyla’s relationship with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka should neither surprise nor scandalize us — especially if we read what John Paul II actually wrote about love.

With the anniversary of Pope St. John Paul II’s death approaching April 2, it’s important to remember that Karol Wojtyła was an actor, poet, and philosopher. And all of these aspects of his person found expression in his monumental “A Theology of the Body.” Given as a series of public audiences in the early 1980s, Pope John Paul’s theological reflections on the body range broadly, but are rooted in a fundamental understanding of the complementarity of women and men. As John Paul argues, the body has a language — spousal meaning and orientation — that reflects the union of Christ and the Church. Most powerfully for some, and controversially for others, John Paul II energetically defends the teachings of Humanae Vitae as most fully respecting and appreciating the divinely ordered nature and purpose of human sexuality. There is a dramatic scope to his presentation, one that often reaches confounding heights of philosophical abstraction.

But Karol Wojtyła the poet is also there, seemingly struggling with the implications of what he describes, rather technically, as “erotic spontaneity” — the experience of giving into the overwhelming power of desire and need. While John Paul II argues that such impulses must be resisted in order to achieve a deeper and more authentic form of spontaneity, I always hear a poet’s heart beating along with the philosophical cadences of his prose: This is a man, I realize, who knows about the complexities of love.

In “A Theology of the Body,” John Paul II speaks at great length about celibacy or countenance. In talking about becoming a “eunuch for the kingdom of Heaven,” John Paul knows that he is entering the terrain of paradox or even contradiction. After all, if the very language of the body speaks of nuptial union, then why would some vow never to experience the marital embrace? John Paul II is careful not to devalue marriage or sexuality. And he is also aware that many would say that the choice for celibacy is something that should not — cannot — be made.

But the kingdom of God, John Paul II reminds us, will transform us and all of our relationships, just as the resurrection will transform our bodily form. Celibacy or countenance gives witness to the Kingdom of God in the here and now — calling us to envision, and be open to, deeper forms of intimacy. While John Paul II does talk about celibacy as sacrifice, he also speaks of it as allowing a fuller openness to God and to one another.

It represents a failure of our imagination if we envision John Paul II either as someone totally divorced from human feeling or as someone who finally surrendered to the most human of instincts. The celibate love that John Paul II writes about is engaged, open, and passionate. Indeed, one could say that celibacy is inevitably passionate because it seeks out other forms of connection and communion that lie beyond the surface of our physical selves.

John Allen writes that “popes are people, too,” as indeed they are. So it stands to reason that the relationship between Karol Wojtyła and Anna Teresa Tymieniecka had both joy and pain, grace and doubt.

But I doubt neither John Paul II’s celibacy nor his sanctity. After all, his celibacy and his sanctity were shaped by a deep understanding of how human love can reflect both our love for God and God’s love for each and every one of us.

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