Letters written by the late Pope John Paul II to a female friend over several decades reveal what The New York Times calls "a startling degree of affection."
Before we let our minds go where our minds often seem willing to go, let's acknowledge that it is quite possible for men and women to be deep friends without there being anything of a sexual nature involved.
JP II was pledged to celibacy, and -- barring specific evidence to the contrary -- I think we need to assume that his friendship with Polish-American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka was platonic, supportive and beautiful (though it does appear that she had fallen in love with him).
He called the married woman (who was a mother) "a gift from God."
All that said, I do think the newly revealed letters raise again for the Catholic Church the issue of priestly celibacy, as this BBC piece suggests. It wasn't until the Middle Ages that the church really mandated clerical celibacy, so we know that over the centuries there have been lots of married Catholic priests. Indeed, there are married Catholic priests today, some of them former Episcopal priests who, already married, converted to Catholicism and were brought into the priesthood. I even did a story about one of them from Kansas some years ago.
Celibacy is understood by the church to be a spiritual discipline and even a gift from God. The Apostle Paul even suggested that celibacy would be preferable if one can manage it.
And yet in many branches of Christianity clergy not only are allowed to marry but even encouraged to do so. One reason is that churches want clergy who, through personal experience, can relate to the issues parishioners have related to marriage, rearing children and so forth.
Religion in general and Christianity in particular teaches that we are built for relationship -- both vertical (with God) and horizontal (with other humans). Mandated celibacy strikes me as a way in which at least part of those relationships can get stunted. Plus, in the case of the Catholic Church it has contributed to a severe shortage of priests.
My job is never to tell any religion what to believe or how to set policies for its leaders. But I think these newly revealed letters from John Paul II to his friend, who lived in Vermont, offer another opportunity for the church to reconsider the issue of celibacy for priests.
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'LET THE LITTLE HIT MEN COME UNTO ME'
On his current trip to Mexico, Pope Francis this week told youth there, “Jesus would never ask us to be hit men.” Well, true. But it raises the question of who might imagine it wouldn't be true. If he has to preach such obvious truths, things must be worse in Mexico than anyone imagined.
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P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online here.
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ANOTHER P.S.: Recently here on the blog, I wrote about a ridiculous anti-blasphemy bill in the eastern European country of Georgia. The good news is that Georgia has scrapped that bad idea. (And I had no idea my blog was so powerful over there.)