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Retranslating the Theology of the Body
(Part 1 of 2)

Interview With Michael Waldstein

GAMING, Austria, JUNE 2, 2006 (Zenit) - The discovery of Polish texts predating Pope John Paul II's pontificate sheds new light on his catechesis about love and sexuality, says a leading scholar.

Michael Waldstein, the founding president of the International Theological Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family, and a member of the Pontifical Council for the Family, changed his perspective on John Paul II after the discovery of the texts.

Waldstein, who is expecting the publication of his new translation of the theology-of-the-body series in September, shared his views on this catechetical work with us in this interview.

Part 2 will appear Saturday.

Q: What is the necessity of publishing a new translation of John Paul II's theology of the body?

Waldstein: There are many problems in the existing translation. For example, the key concept "significato sponsale del corpo" -- spousal meaning of the body -- which John Paul II uses 117 times, is translated in eight different ways. The reason is easy to understand.

On any given Wednesday when John Paul II delivered one of the catecheses at the general audience, the Italian text was sent over to L'Osservatore Romano and whoever was on duty at the English desk translated it. The translators did not have the work as a whole before them, but they translated each catechesis individually. These various inconsistencies indicate that there were several translators.

Later translators could not go back and change the translation, because it had already been published. The edition by Pauline Books and Media is simply a compilation of these translations.

And so there is a need for a systematic translation that considers the work as a whole to make decisions about particular terms in light of the whole.

I began to retranslate passages that I needed for the book about the theology of the body I have been working on for the past five years. At a certain point the decision to translate the whole text became the logical next step, so I contacted Pauline Books and Media.

It seemed a providential moment, because the Daughters of St. Paul had become increasingly aware of the need for a new translation and were praying that God would show them some way to produce it.

It has been both wonderful and fun to work with them. They are professional and animated by a strong love for John Paul II.

There is a second reason why we need a new edition. It is even more important.

The current translation does not contain John Paul II's own headings. Just imagine reading a complex work like Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" with all the headings gone. You would get lost like someone in the fog. You wouldn't know where you are or where you are going. The headings help to organize the work as a whole.

Q: Why did earlier editions not have these headings? Where did you find them?

Waldstein: I found them at the John Paul II archives in Rome. It was an exciting discovery.

Like many people, when I began reading the "Theology of the Body" I felt disoriented. A deep argument seemed to be going on, but its overall structure was not clear to me.

Some people say the "Theology of the Body" is like this because John Paul II was a phenomenologist rather than a Thomist, or a mystic rather than a theologian, or a Slav rather than a Western European. In the work for my book, I thought I had made some real progress in understanding the overall structure.

Still, I wanted to know how John Paul II himself thought of it. I felt sure he must have had an outline when he wrote the work.

So about half a year ago I went with a Polish friend to the Dom Polski, the Polish Pilgrim House in Rome, on the Via Cassia, where the John Paul II Archives are kept.

We looked through the Italian materials, but found nothing. We were disappointed, but asked the director of the archives if he had anything else. Yes, he said, we have the materials of the Polish translation, but you will not find anything there that is not in the Italian, because the Italian is the original text.

We decided to take a look nevertheless and found a Polish text that had a five level division with headings I had never seen before. It turns out that Cardinal Wojtyla wrote the theology of the body in Polish before his election in 1978. It seems to have been ready for publication.

We became fully sure about the priority of the Polish text only when we managed to contact the sister who actually typed the manuscript in Krakow before John Paul II's election.

In the archives we also found a handwritten note from John Paul II to his secretary that explains that the structure of the theology of the body would remain exactly the same when he adapted it for the series of catecheses.

Having these headings is a revelation. It opens up the text in amazing ways. You see how rigorous John Paul II's writing really is.

The reason why other editions don't have these headings seems to be the relatively isolated life of the individual catecheses. John Paul II delivered them one by one without, of course, saying, just to take one example, We are now in Part Two -- The Sacrament; Chapter Two -- The Dimension of Sign; Section Two -- The Song of Songs; Subsection Three -- Eros or Agape?

That would have been unintelligible. When he was finished, the catecheses were collected and assembled, but the knowledge of the structure of the whole was lost. Only John Paul II's Polish collaborators had this knowledge. I don't know why it did not cross the language barrier into Italian.

Q: What reasons could you give for the growing attraction of people to the theology of the body?

Waldstein: To all men and women, their own body is very precious, and what happens with that body, especially in love, in erotic relations, is very significant.

Nobody can be indifferent to sexuality. To make sense of sexuality, deep sense, penetrating sense that shows the beauty of union between man and woman, and also the beauty of celibate life, is worth a good amount of effort.

This is the main reward of climbing the tall mountain of the theology of the body. You see your own body differently. You see it as being full of meaning. This is my experience and the experience of the many students with whom I have studied the theology of the body here in Austria.


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Theology, Body, Waldstein, John Paul, Catechesis, Love

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