I WAS curiously enchanted by claims in the BBC’s Panorama programme last Monday that Pope John Paul II had enjoyed a close friendship with a female academic. The late pontiff, now in the process of being made a saint by Rome, captured the imagination of the world and the hearts of the Church when he became Pope in 1978. His personal charisma became evident almost as soon as he appeared on the balcony at St Peter’s to greet the world and his flock. That he was also possessed of a chiselled and handsome face and a voice of operatic depth helped make him the our first rock'n'roll pope.

A few years later a friend of mine, captivated by the charms of a fellow student in his English class, was thrilled when she invited him for tea at her flat. Believing that romance and perhaps something else was in the air he rocked up to her west end abode suffused with optimism and Hai Karate only to be startled by the giant-sized poster of John Paul in her kitchen. “How in the name of God are you supposed to compete with that?” he asked me later.

The revelation was a disturbing one: not only was John Paul the successor to Saint Peter and Christ’s vicar on earth, but he was also a poet, footballer, mountaineer, linguist … and the man who brought down the Soviets. If Catholic women are going to judge us all by the standards of this Polish superman then we’ve all got a problem, I thought.

Last week’s Panorama was careful to stress there was no suggestion that John Paul ever broke his vows of celibacy during his long friendship with the Polish academic and philosopher, Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka. Their friendship had started when she collaborated with him on a book at a time when he was plain and simple Karol Wojtyla, Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow. Over the years that followed their friendship developed and included an intense four-year exchange of letters. Edward Stourton, the esteemed BBC journalist who analysed the relationship on Panorama, said that he thought the two were “more than friends, less than lovers”.

I think Stourton, who is also a Catholic, is right. “I am overwhelmed by sadness and anxiety, and want desperately to be close to you. I arrive on Saturday?” Anna-Teresa wrote these words to John Paul in one of her letters. A woman of her intelligence surely ought to have known what words like that, framed in such a manner, can do to a man’s heart. They would drive any man crazy with desire; the little minx.

I am glad, though, that Pope John Paul II had the consolation of this intense friendship with a woman to sustain him in the world’s loneliest job. Just the knowledge that somewhere on earth there is a clever woman who has ring-fenced a portion of her heart for you can be a supreme consolation in the darkest hours. It doesn’t matter whether you be a road-digger or successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God; your heart will still do somersaults.

Furthermore, I believe that John Paul’s deep friendship with Anna-Teresa probably made him a better Pope and a better man. There are things that men are only comfortable talking about to women; if they can’t share these things with women then those things remain concealed, sapping those men's energy and causing all sorts of trouble.

Inevitably, the revelation that one of the Church’s greatest popes appreciated the company and the quality of women has invited renewed scrutiny of Rome’s continuing insistence that priests be celibate. This comes at a time when the Church is facing a crisis of personnel throughout the world. Quite simply, far fewer Catholic boys want to become priests than before and far more existing priests are quitting their sacred vows. In Scotland, the archdiocese of Glasgow recently announced plans to shut dozens of its parishes owing to sharp falls in Mass attendance and the paucity of numbers of men training to be priests.

There are several reasons for this, but the fact that Scotland is an increasingly secular society with increasingly secular values is probably the biggest. It hasn’t helped, of course, that there has been a crisis of leadership in the Scottish Catholic Church since the death of Cardinal Thomas Winning in 2001. Some in the hierarchy and a distressingly high number of priests seem intellectually and spiritually incapable of countering the reductive narrative of secularism with the hope and optimism of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nor has it helped that, as revelations of clerical sexual abuse throughout the world and the cover-ups which followed it have spread wider, a corresponding crisis of trust between the faithful and the clergy has occurred.

However, while the numbers recede and a ravaged clergy wring their hands, a possible solution is sitting before them. At the current rate of decline, the Catholic Church in Scotland will barely have sufficient numbers of priests to sustain itself in a few generations to come. Yet, among the 200,000 or so Catholics who still regularly attend Mass and take the sacraments, there are many who possess all the attributes desperately needed by a church in dire need of an injection of quality and proper parish leadership.

Some of them will be eloquent, charismatic and possessed of those leadership abilities that could halt flagging church attendances. These men though, also happen to be married and will likely have children. Even as it peers over the abyss and shuts down parishes that have served the Catholic community in Scotland for more than a century, the Church can’t yet quite bring itself to reach out to these men.

You will scan the Old and New Testaments in vain to find any references before or after the time of Jesus about enforced celibacy for clergy. Indeed Catholics of my acquaintance from the Church’s more traditional wing have always had trouble accounting for the fact that St Peter, the first Pope, had a mother-in-law. The absolute requirement for celibacy appears to have taken root around the 11th and 12th centuries and may have owed more to temporal concerns about the loss of land and influence through the law of primogeniture. Enforced universal celibacy is not in the scripture and tradition of the Catholic Church.

In the 1980s, the Vatican, in a curiously enlightened and progressive move, permitted disaffected and married Anglican clergy to continue their ministry in the Catholic Church – wife, kids, mothers-in-law and all. Today, there are dozens of married Catholic priests throughout England and Wales whose sacred vows of matrimony were taken when they were in the Anglican communion. This has caused pain and puzzlement to some Catholic priests who have been told nevertheless to lower their hopes of a conjugal future. One former priest I know, among the brightest and most highly regarded of his generation, is now a social worker. He simply fell in love and the Church was unable to accommodate what he regarded as a gift from God.

Sadly, it seems that my Church has allowed a reactionary and fearful cabal to dictate its approach in this area. They fear that the sacred state of celibacy itself will be undermined by permitting serving priests to marry and they have a terror of women and of their potential influence on the church through matrimony. Holy Mother of God, they cry, we could eventually have a woman strutting about in her high heels and God knows what else around the Pope’s private apartments.

Yet, I suspect many priests, if given the choice, would still opt for celibacy. There are solid practical reasons why the Church demands that its priests, the front line in its struggle to save our souls, participate in the celibate state. The demands of running a parish, say, in a working-class community in the west of Scotland, are huge. They often require a priest also to be a social worker, teacher, psychologist and carer. And during all this they must be instruments for Christ’s forgiveness and compassion through all of the troubles that will afflict a family on its unsteady path towards salvation. The Church also prizes the sacrament of Holy Matrimony but how many wives could long endure marriage to a man with that burden of social and spiritual responsibility? In the modern world though, as the Church faces societal challenges which are threatening to engulf it, there could be room for both married and celibate clergy.

The Church also needs to address the role of women in its parishes. Some of the most able and gifted members of the Catholic Church in Scotland are women. Yet on any given Sunday, in parishes throughout the land, they are reduced effectively to the state of volunteer helper at Mass while some incoherent and semi-literate whisky priest drones drearily on from the pulpit. The Church needs to find a way of getting these women into the pulpit so that more of us can have access to their innate wisdom and gifts of compassion and reconciliation.

As well as the threats from within, the Catholic Church in Scotland is also facing the implacable enmity of the forces of secular humanism. These people, who on one hand, claim to desire cultural diversity and freedom in smart, successful Scotland, will also not rest until all vestiges of Christianity are wiped from the nation’s civic life. The Catholic Church, in common with its brothers and sisters in Scotland’s other Christian communities, must counter the siren cries of the humanists as they infiltrate public life. It would make sense then that the formidable men and women who are currently shut out of the leadership and decision-making arm of the Church be invited in. These people have the intellectual tools to defend Christianity in the secular world. The Church’s future in such a world may yet depend on them.

Of course, the rate at which the wheels of the Catholic Church turn make Chilcott look like a five-minute breeze. Last week, Pope Francis signalled that the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception could be relaxed in a lesser-of-two-evils scenario to help combat the threat of the Zika virus. By my estimation, the Church has been talking about this for around 50 years. This is because when it considers issues of the here and now it does so in the context of our place in Eternity and with a wisdom wrought of ages.

The Church will never allow itself to be persuaded by the shifting currents of instant gratification. Where matters of God-given human sexuality are concerned though, a little yielding could occur without re-writing the rules.