Monday's Panorama programme will focus on St John Paul's friendship with a Polish-born philosopher

The BBC will broadcast a documentary this evening on an alleged close friendship between St John Paul II and a married woman.

The friendship, which appears to have lasted for more than 30 years, began in the 1970s when the then Cardinal Karol Wojtyła met Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, a Polish-born philosopher.

They later collaborated on an English-language version of The Acting Person, a book on philosophy that he wrote while he was teaching at Lublin University.

Tonight’s Panorama programme, to be shown on BBC One at 8.30pm, is based on St John Paul’s letters to her, which were sold to the National Library of Poland in 2008. The BBC has not seen her letters to him.

BBC journalist Ed Stourton stresses that there is no suggestion of any impropriety in St John Paul’s behaviour, but that the friendship was close. They went on country walks and skiing holidays, and there are photographs of him with her on a group camping trip. The friendship continued after he became Pope; she last visited him the day before his death in 2005.

St John Paul granted a papal knighthood to Anna-Teresa’s husband, the Harvard economist Hendrik Houthakker, who advised him on post-communist economies.

George Weigel, who wrote Witness to Hope, an influential biography of St John Paul, described the story as “a tempest in a teapot” that would not change his perception of St John Paul II “in the slightest”.

“Why should anyone find it odd that priests and bishops should have friendships with women, including the kind of friendships in which emotions and ideas are expressed in correspondence? Only those who imagine that celibacy is some weird and warped form of bachelorhood would find it odd,” he said

“Moreover, as my own Witness to Hope demonstrates, Karol Wojtyla was in correspondence with women who were his friends when he was a young priest; so the fact that he had an extensive correspondence with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka and Wanda Poltowska as a bishop and as pope isn’t any big surprise. As I know from my own correspondence with him, John Paul II used letters to think things through, so again there’s no surprise that he did so in his letters with Tymieniecka.

“If these letters help some people understand that Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, was a real person, I’ll be pleased; but many of us have known that for a very long time.”

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