Belfast Telegraph

Pope treating female friend like an equal can only boost his reputation

Newly revealed letters written by John Paul II show he had an intensely emotional relationship with a married woman that spanned more than three decades. So what, says Malachi O'Doherty

Here's a theory about how Pope John Paul II came to be a much more genial and charismatic Pope than any before or since. He liked women; he had a special woman friend in his life.

This contrasts with, say, John XXIII, who is quoted as having said that he would not have a woman about him, or something like that.

He was of the tradition in celibate priesthood that practised "custody of the eyes". The good priest, faced with a woman who disclosed a little cleavage, knows to look away. Women were essentially - if you can take more theology - "an occasion of sin".

The good Catholic - and particularly the good Catholic priest - not only avoided sin, but steered well clear of all temptation.

And what could be more tempting for a celibate heterosexual man than a friendly woman, one who thinks you are a marvellously intelligent and engaging man?

That the temptation might feel stronger because of the celibacy appears to be something the Church did not consider. It thought that, in the world of religious self-discipline, it is obvious what can go wrong when you are talking to a woman who likes and admires you. Inevitably, you are going to end up between the sheets together. And that would be awful.

Most of the rest of us live and work among women every day and manage not to be overwhelmed by them.

Modern psychology says we are much more likely to obsess about sex if we try to lock it out of our lives, but that message is slow to convert the traditionalists.

Catholicism isn't the only religious tradition that teaches men to be wary of women. The most obvious sign of a religious fear that sight of a woman will drive a man to perdition is in Islam, where women are covered up more than the medieval Christian nuns.

The logic there is that, if you never see a woman's flesh, you will not be tempted, and if other men never see your wife they will not take the notion to steal her away from you.

All of this seems to be predicated upon the idea that women have little say on the matter themselves.

Buddha was not very keen on women being members of his community, either.

He said any religion that ordained women would not last long.

"As families that have more women than men are easily destroyed by robbers, as a plentiful rice-field once infested by rice worms will not long remain, as a sugarcane field invaded by red rust will not long remain, even so the True Dharma will not last long," he wrote.

All over the world the religious have tried to create male-led societies which treated women as inferior. If there is any sort of big story in what John Paul II did, it is that he treated a woman as an equal.

Hindu monks are celibate and hold to a theology that regards the body as innately sinful. This promotes some strange ideas.

When I lived in India I saw religious pamphlets which encouraged men to overcome the fires of lust by contemplating the slimy innards of the body that superficially enthralled them.

In the country of the saree a man might often see a woman's fleshy belly, but then he was encouraged to visualise what was inches behind that skin, or to visualise the woman dead and decomposing.

There were marvellous exceptions. Swami Vivekananda, famous in the 1890s, was a charismatic figure like John Paul II. He surrounded himself with bright women, one of them being Margaret Noble from Dungannon, who became a nun.

Like John Paul, he was able to respect the intelligence of women while keeping his celibacy vow. Maybe that is a rare thing.

And yet his letters to Margaret were often abrupt and unkind. They show how he constantly pushed her back, warned her not to presume too close a friendship.

There is no getting away from the fact that this is one of the things that religion has done across the world for thousands of years - it has tried to teach men that women are dangerous.

Then along comes a Pope who has a warm and vivacious friendship with a woman and not only does it seem to be at least indicative of him being a nicer, easier person, it opens his own mind.

The response then of the media to discovering his letters is to spark off a flurry of excitement and speculation. Did they or didn't they? Apparently, they didn't. And that leaves you wondering: 'What's the story?'

For, apart from John Paul II being an exception to the religious sniffiness about women, there is nothing there that could be called a decent scandal.

Yet, it leaves you wondering how the average celibate priest manages his relationships with women - and if many of them have similar special friends.

One of the stereotypes of Irish lore is the priest's housekeeper. I know a priest - and I'll not embarrass him by naming him - whose housekeeper took ill. He admitted to being lost without her.

Then, to his horror, the hospital discharged her on the understanding that she had a carer at home who would look after her; that was, the priest himself.

This compromised him on two levels. It abolished the conceit that the whole point of having a housekeeper was practical and in the interests of the priest - that she was an employee, not a partner or a friend.

And it presumed that a priest was a normal human being, one who might, when called on, help a frail woman into her nightie.

The poor priest was stricken by the very thought. Yet there must be many ways in which the relationship between a priest and a housekeeper can evolve into something very similar to married life.

And why shouldn't it? Only because there are rules that much of the modern world finds ridiculous, and more, that the world fears are dangerous, for all that restraint must surely burst out somewhere.

Some of us, reflecting on the fact that John Paul had a rich friendship with a woman, will be glad of that.

If he managed to treat her mind as equal to his without the sexual temptation intervening, then he was not just doing what his predecessors could not trust themselves to do, he was also achieving something that many lay people fail in.

Sometimes a woman saying "but I just want to be your friend" comes as a disappointment.

Maybe John Paul was, in some ways after all, an example to the rest of us.

Belfast Telegraph


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