National Catholic Register


Theology of the Body, Clarified

Scholar’s new translation is truer to John Paul’s original


October 1-7, 2006 Issue | Posted 9/27/06 at 10:00 AM


There were no slithering snakes or sword-wielding assassins, but Michael Waldstein still experienced what you might call an “Indiana Jones” moment.

For years, the Austrian biblical scholar had hoped to uncover the mystery of the original text of a crucial papal teaching — radical thinking that one Church scholar has referred to as a “theological time bomb.”

Finally, in January this year, Waldstein traveled to Rome hot on the trail. There, in a papal archive center, the bespectacled scholar found what he had long sought: John Paul II’s blueprint for the “theology of the body.”

“That really just electrified us,” Waldstein says. “Step by step, we then figured out that that must be the original work.”

The find, in the John Paul II Foundation at Dom Polski, was only part of Waldstein’s quest. For almost two years, he labored on a new translation of Theology of the Body, the late Pope’s lengthy, heady work exploring and explaining sex and human existence. It is perhaps his greatest theological contribution to the Church, earning the “time bomb” label from papal biographer George Weigel.

Waldstein finished his translation early this summer and the book, published by Pauline Books & Media, is now available for ordering.

For “TOB” experts and enthusiasts, the timing could not be better.

“I was absolutely thrilled when I heard it was forthcoming,” says author Christopher West, perhaps the theology’s most popular proponent. “I felt the need for it, but I didn’t have the level of scholarship necessary to do it.”

Waldstein did. He is fluent in German, English and Italian, and able to read seven other languages. He’s chancellor and Francis of Assisi Professor of New Testament at the International Theological Institute in Austria. Together with his wife, Susie, he is a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Dallas, a licentiate in sacred Scripture from the Biblicum in Rome and a theology doctorate in New Testament and Christian origins from Harvard Divinity School.

Oh, and he and Susie have eight children.

Waldstein first studied the theology of the body in 1981 while a philosophy student at the University of Dallas. John Paul II had begun issuing his masterwork in 1979 during his Wednesday general audiences. These ran until 1984.

The Italian versions the Holy Father provided to the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano were translated into various languages. But because different translators did the work, the translations were inconsistent.

Waldstein set about correcting that. While translating the Pope’s work more accurately was the heart of his task, he also was intent on acquiring a detailed outline of the treatise. “I was pretty sure there had to be one because it’s so intricately worked out, and you can’t do that on the spot,” Waldstein told the Register by phone from Gaming, Austria. “You have to plan it out and then keep to your plan.”

Key in the Cobwebs

Because of the Pope’s intricately reasoned, phenomenological approach to shaping his thought, the lack of an outline made challenging reading even more arduous.

“Many people have the experience that it’s very difficult to know where you are and where you are going in the text,” says Waldstein. “Like being in the fog.”

The fog lifted in 2006 when Waldstein and a friend discovered the outline among John Paul II’s archives. The director there had provided the original, typed version of Theology of the Body in Italian. The next day, he provided the Polish version, which he believed was a translation of the Italian.

It turned out to be the original, typed for then-Cardinal Karol Wojtyla by a Polish nun. The Polish version included elaborate four- to five-level systems of headings, parts, chapters, sections and subsections. The nun confirmed with Waldstein that the Polish version indeed had come first and was the one that John Paul II brought from Krakow to Rome after his election as Pope.

“When I got the headings, it just popped open,” Waldstein says. “I could then appreciate the power of his mind — how carefully he had laid out the different parts of the work, one thing depending on the other and continuing and so on.”

Accordingly, Waldstein gave his translation new headings. That was only one of many changes, though.

West points first to Waldstein’s consistency with the Pope’s use of significato sponsale del corp, correctly translated “spousal meaning of the body.” That had inconsistently been translated at different times as matrimonial, conjugal and, most often, nuptial meaning of the body.

Waldstein refers to the term as “the single most central and important concept in TOB,” so translating it accurately was important.

“The word ‘nuptial’ is … very much tied to the wedding,” says Waldstein. “‘Spousal’ covers the whole breadth of life of a man and a woman who are married to each other. That is one of the great advantages of ‘spousal’ over ‘nuptial.’”

Knowing that “nuptial meaning” had taken root in the English world, Waldstein asked West if “spousal meaning” should be used instead. West conducted an informal survey of “lay enthusiasts” who showed an “overwhelming preference for ‘spousal,’” says West, who reviewed Waldstein’s work prior to publication and wrote its preface.

Other changes in Waldstein’s translation:

— “Lust” was replaced with “desire” when appropriate — which was often. Waldstein cited it as most problematic in the original translation. “Lust is a vice and desire can be good or bad,” he says. “The Pope goes on to make a distinction between forms of desire that are good and forms of desire that are bad. If you lust for both, you’re in big trouble.”

Legionary Father Walter Schu, who has written two books related to theology of the body, also appreciated the change. “‘Lust’ appeared innumerable times, which gave the idea that the Holy Father had a negative approach,” Father Schu says.

— The Pope’s complete reflections on the Song of Songs and Book of Tobit now are included.

— At the Vatican’s request the book’s title now is Man and Woman He Created Them, with the subtitle “A Theology of the Body.”

— Sentence structure is more faithful to John Paul II’s original (albeit longer) sentences.

— A comprehensive index of words and phrases is provided based on the Italian text. The index alone is “one of the great boons for scholars,” says Father Schu.

Will Waldstein’s book advance John Paul’s thinking ?

“I think that, in scholarship, it will make a tremendous difference,” says West.

Anthony Flott writes from

Papillion, Nebraska.

Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body

by Pope John Paul II
Translated by Michael M. Waldstein

Pauline, 2006

768 pages, $29.95

To order: (800) 836-9723