I was 16 when I watched The Thorn Birds. Riveted hardly describes it. Rachel Ward’s softly beckoning breasts, Richard Chamberlain’s torturous conundrum between God and girl. To my teenage hormones, the romance was captivating and the sexual tension thrilling.
If the Catholic Church is to survive its sexual assault scourge, it needs to cease denying intimacy and insisting on celibacy as a prerequisite for ministry.
But after four episodes and a speed read through Colleen McCulloch’s 692 breathless pages, I came to a single blinding conclusion: How dumb is it that priests can’t have sex?
I raised it with my maths teacher. How can you concentrate on trigonometry when there’s a nonsensical rule called celibacy preventing the lovely Rachel from getting it on with gorgeous Richard? (Somewhat concerning was the priest being called Ralph, but I digress).
Mr Thomas, as well as teaching Grade 11 maths, also headed up the school’s Christian Fellowship club. Poor man. Imagine having your benign little lesson in tangents hijacked by 20 teens pouring scorn on a central tenet of your faith. From memory, Mr T had a crack at convincing us of the merit of abstention but, as I say, we were 16 and throbbing to the beat of Culture Club. Not having sex for your whole life seemed utterly illogical.
What a validation it is to fledgling adolescent instinct to therefore learn that the Pope at the time was enjoying, if not a sexual relationship, then certainly an intimate one.
Pope John Paul II had a close relationship with a married woman lasting 30 years according to letters unearthed by BBC documentary makers. “I would say they were more than friends but less than lovers,” says Edward Stourton, the journalist who has pored over more 350 letters between the Pope and Polish-born philosopher and writer Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka.
There’s no need to go into what the relationship was or wasn’t. What matters is that it was something. That this man of greatness, the revered mouthpiece of God, needed something that we all need: intimacy. And if we can acknowledge that, we can acknowledge so much more.
At a time when our nation is broken and angered by the Catholic Church, when a cardinal so many upheld stands quivering on the other side of the world, this insight into the church’s humanity should serve as a guiding star to the faith and all who follow it.
Because it’s one of the great mysteries that we have chosen and anointed as our moral and spiritual shepherds men who have half the emotional experience of your average 22-year-old university student.