So Pope John Paul II had a mistress. That’s not quite what the BBC’s Panorama asserted, but they chucked around enough hint, innuendo and nudge, nudge to make us believe he had. And there was similar suggestiveness in a Today programme interview on Monday morning between John Humphrys and the liberal Catholic journalist Edward Stourton. Humphrys delighted in the whiff of salaciousness and wondered aloud whether Stourton’s discovery of hundreds of letters between the former Pope and the Polish-American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka indicated that the pair were lovers. After much whetting of our licentious appetites, the BBC concluded that they were 'More than friends but not quite lovers.' They were certainly collaborators: Anna-Teresa helped John Paul in the 1970s – when he was still Cardinal Karol Wojtyla - with the writing of his book The Acting Person.
Of course the BBC has a reputation for throwing as much mud as possible at the Catholic Church: child abuse, kinky cardinals, sex and drugs in the Vatican and financial jiggery-pokery endemic – but the matter is much broader than that. Along with all the institutional structures of the modern, media age, the BBC has a frantic obsession with sex. This is bound to be the case, because we live in a culture – if that is not too dignified a word here – which lives by publicity. Bluntly, sex sells papers and it fills TV screens from Downton Abbey to War and Peace. Nightly, the Corporation offers us fifty shades of sleaze. So naturally the first question the Beeb asks – also the last question it asks, and all the other questions in-between – is Were They At It?
I know it’s expecting a lot, but imagine for a minute, if you can, that we live in a sane world – a world in which the national broadcasting channel had other things on its mind than the twelve-month US presidential campaign, the mawkish and extensive coverage of the deaths of pop-stars and the tawdriness of the film and TV awards. It’s instructive, by the way, to notice that the annual presentations of tat to tat are called awards ceremonies. But that is exactly what they are: the pseudo-religious rites of our decadent and solipsistic consumerism. But please, if you can, suspend your disbelief for a second and imagine the modern world as a better place. Further, imagine the BBC as an intelligent, knowledgeable institution with an interest in matters a little higher than the bread and circuses of pop trash. If you can manage to imagine that, then ask yourself what sort of questions the guys and gals on Panorama might have asked…
How about: 'This book that they wrote together – what is it about?' I know this is almost impossibly difficult, but suppose that the BBC possessed the foggiest idea about the meaning of critical judgement and might therefore be capable of asking the question, 'Is it a good book?' Of course, those questions are not asked because, first, media types who swoon over Bob Dylan and David Bowie can’t be expected to know anything about philosophy and theology; and, secondly, the voicing of a critical opinion is disallowed by our yobbish, levelling culture as offensively judgemental.
There ought to be a broadcast slogan every time we switch on the telly or the wireless: 'All hope abandon ye who enter here.' Speaking of which, that was the text over the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno. Dante’s Inferno is the first book in a great trilogy The Divine Comedy which is an exquisite and learned discussion of the progress of the soul. Dante himself tells us that much of it was inspired by the young girl Beatrice – and indeed she becomes his guide and leads him through the highest realms of Paradise and shows him 'The love that moves the sun and the other stars.' Dante first met Beatrice when she was about eight or nine years old.
Right – so let me imagine I’m a 'top' BBC journalist for a minute. What’s the first question I should ask? Well, of course, it’s 'Was Dante Alighieri a paedophile?' Or, if not quite as bad as that – though of course he was a Catholic so you couldn’t put it past him – did he at least get into bed with her when she was grown up? Never mind the poetry, feel the filth.
Back to the broad issue. There are subtle and profound things to be said about the relationship between men and women and particularly about love and creativity which is miles above the gutter into which our present day intemperate commentators have fallen. There is the Medieval cultural mosaic of Romance and courtly love about which, for instance, C.S. Lewis has written so inspiringly. There have been so many deep and generative relationships between the sexes. Think of Samuel Johnson and Hester Thrale, to whom he addressed two poems – one of them in Latin, so that wouldn’t get a mention in the media jabber of our anti-elitists. There was the doomed passion between Soren Kierkegaard – the greatest Christian thinker of the 19th century – and Regina Olsen. Or Wittgenstein and Marguerite Respinger. At this point the man from the Beeb – let us say John Humphrys - would presumably only ask, 'But Wittgenstein was gay, wasn’t he?'