By Jonathon Van Maren
It shouldn’t be surprising that every media outlet in the Western world is scrambling to print a wildly-titled article on Pope John Paul II’s friendship with a female Polish academic, but it is tiresome and irritating. Every columnist within reach of a typewriter is salivating over two things: First, that a religious figure could be accompanied by a whiff of hypocrisy, and secondly, this new “proof” that the idea of sexual chastity is so wildly unrealistic that even the pope can’t contain himself. It’s pathetic to see the National Post and a dozen other newspapers reduced to the slimy insinuations of the National Enquirer.
Before anyone accuses me of bias, I want to point out that since I am not a Catholic, I don’t have a dog in this fight. My irritation with this entire situation is not borne out of any devotion to the man—although I very much respect many of his accomplishments and his moral clarity on moral issues—it is out of a frustration I have written on before. That is the fact that since the Sexual Revolution, our culture has decided that it is virtually impossible for friendship to exist without the inevitability of something sexual taking place. As I wrote several years ago:
It is an irony of Modernia that the secular elites believe that it is perfectly reasonable to assume that mankind has the ability to change the climate or end poverty, but is incapable of keeping his or her pants on. We can do anything, if we put our minds to it—except, of course, stop ourselves from devolving into an irrational pool of primal passion the moment we are presented with the opportunity for sexual (mis)adventure. That’s because “abstinence,” the Sages of the Sexual Revolution inform us from a wealth of inexperience, is “unrealistic.” Thus, every friendship is now suspect—cross-gender friendships especially, mind you, but certainly not exclusively. This is not merely my own observation, either. Many of my friends, from every walk of life and varying worldviews, have made the same complaint. Friends, you say, people say knowingly if you’ve begun spending what they consider to be a significant amount of time with someone, Interesting.
Pop culture confirms and accentuates this new assumption, as well—nearly every sitcom on television has the characters eventually falling into bed with each other, as if it was simply a matter of time and the buzzer had gone off indicating that the “friends” period was over and “friends with benefits” could now ensue. In fact, the smash hit 1990s NBC sitcom Friends features nearly every character sleeping with the other at some point. At this point, gender is of little consequence, and the aging and nostalgic hippie academics of history and literature are retroactively applying sexual motivation to every expression of love and affection they can find. From Abraham Lincoln sharing a bed with a male friend (how could they not be gay?) to the ancient Israeli King David’s friendship with Jonathan, to apparently homosexual lines in Shakespeare’s sonnets, everything is now suspect. One literature professor has even claimed that Anne of Green Gables of the beloved Canadian novels had a lesbian relationship with her best friend Diana, the rebuttal of which caused the theorist to accuse her critics of being “hetero-centrist.” (Her critics responded intelligently, although they could have just suggested that her literary tastes ran more to E.L James than to L.M Montgomery.)
The suggestion that “intimacy” necessarily translates into “sex”—which it certainly does not—is one that is extraordinarily reductionist in its analysis of the human person. The idea that two human beings cannot share a close, personal, and meaningful relationship with each other without any sexual component whatsoever is one that assumes human beings, in all their glorious and messy complexities, cannot be interested in someone else without demanding something—and something physical—from them. It assumes that real friends, friends who share common ground upon which to discuss life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, will at the end of the day measure the happiness of such a relationship and trade it in for fleeting physical pleasure, regardless of the cost. (Here I am not referring, of course, to marriage, in many ways the highest form of friendship.) It assumes that the physical will always beat out the cerebral and intellectual in the value judgements people make. This attitude is stupid, offensive, immoral, and, I think, increasingly intolerable, as it has cast a pall of suspicion over many relationships that in days gone by would have been considered perfectly ordinary. While the Sexual Revolutionaries have robbed us of much—not least of which is the treasure of life-long marriage—surely friendship ranks quite close to the top as well. As C.S Lewis wrote, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”
This is not to say, obviously, that friendships do not of necessity have boundaries (especially cross-gender friendships)—a wonderful essay on this has been written by Jonalyn Fincher. But, as one of my (female) friends said, perhaps our culture has “killed friendship because we’re so fixated on getting off that we end up neglecting instead of nurturing the friendships with those who might need us and who we may be able to help through the tough times—and they might not be there for us in the future when we need them, because we’re so over-sexualized that all we care about is feeding our sensual pleasures.” As CS Lewis so brilliantly noted, ““Those who cannot conceive of Friendship as a substantive love but only as a disguise or elaboration of Eros betray the fact that they have never had a Friend.”
Which is precisely why secular journalists are talking about Pope John Paul II’s “love affair,” and his “secret letters to a married woman” and his relationship with “the love of his life”—because they cannot fathom a friendship, particularly between those of the opposite sex, that does not have some sexual connotation. What a dreary, lonely world these people live in. Referring to someone affectionately means that some sort of “affair” is taking place? Loving someone as a friend insinuates that something inappropriate is afoot? Looking over some of the correspondence the pope had with his philosopher friend Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, all I can see is a lovely friendship between two like minds.
Inevitably, once you get past the sensationalist clickbait title, you find some strategically-placed admission that there is no evidence the pope had a sexual relationship with his friend, nor that there was anything inappropriate afoot. That hasn’t stopped a million primitive Internet commenters from gloating over the “evidence” that living a chaste lifestyle is “impossible,” a statement that always says more about the writer rather than chastity. And again, I have to shake my head at a worldview that promised the Sexual Revolution would bring us closer together, but instead took a wrecking ball to friendship.