Noodling the Theology of the Body

A lot of people seem to think that the Church functions according to the principle, “That which is not forbidden is compulsory.” So many folk seem to be under the impression that there is a black and white magisterial answer to everything, and that “You’re with us or agin’ us” is the watchword for all disputes in the life of the Church.

I don’t know why this is, since the intellectual life of the Church has been chockablock with enormous diversity of opinion since the start. And yet, so it is — especially in our uber-polarized culture of politicized discourse here in the United States.

Case in point: the recent alarums and discursions concerning the Theology of the Body (TOB). It seems like every time I turn around, somebody is talking about it with vehemence, and often the discourse on the topic seems to devolve into sundry tribalisms in which one’s commitment to God, love, truth, and puppies is measured by Which Side you are on. Are you a godless Westian libertine bent on perverting the Faith with your pagan sex cult? Or are you a wizened prude who does not grasp the fact that Pope John Paul II’s brilliant insights are a golden opportunity to evangelize the culture?

Me: I have the great advantage of a more or less benign indifference about the Theology of the Body and so feel free to butt into the discussion and make everybody mad at me with a few casual remarks directed to the partisans of both sides of the argument. Sound fun? Let’s don our flame-retardant underwear and take a look.


The first thing we all need to know about the Theology of the Body is that, while interesting, it is not magisterial teaching. In short, the whole argument is about a fascinating and potentially useful constellation of ideas that do not form part of the essential teaching of the Faith. John Paul articulated the TOB in the early 1980s in a series of audiences. What is notable about this is that, having done so, he never returned to the subject in his magisterial teaching. There is no encyclical on the TOB. That should command our attention, because it means that the quarrel is about something that, while interesting, is not particularly binding on anybody as a Catholic.

Now, I don’t believe in Minimum Daily Adult Catholicism, so I don’t think we have to play the game of “If it’s not magisterial, we should just ignore it.” I think the late Holy Father has some interesting and profound things to say in his teaching on the TOB and that we can profit from it. But precisely because it is not magisterial, I also think we can dial back the rhetoric about Who’s a Bad Catholic if there is controversy and ferment concerning this teaching. It could be (and I think obviously is) the case that people on all sides of the argument about TOB are typically good Catholics, all trying to live and practice the Faith.

So what does the TOB say? An excellent question, and one that pertains directly to the passionate partisanship of the arguments, since (ahem) very few of the people who are zealous proponents and opponents of the TOB in the comboxes of St. Blog’s have actually read John Paul II. What they’ve read (or heard about) is Christopher West’s presentation of the TOB.

That’s the first big problem. If we haven’t read John Paul’s description of a boojum and have never seen a boojum ourselves, we are powerless to know if Christopher West is accurately describing a boojum. The most we can do is say, “I like that boojum Christopher West describes,” or “I hate that boojum Christopher West describes.” Or, we can say, as I do, “I’m largely indifferent to that boojum Christopher West describes, though West seems to be trying to serve the Church, albeit imperfectly, as do we all.”

The TOB, as near as I can tell, made no impact on Catholics for nearly two decades after it was articulated by the pope. What seems to have brought it to people’s attention was the enthusiasm of George Weigel, who described the TOB in his biography Witness to Hope as “one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries,” declared it a “kind of theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church,” and prophesied that it had barely begun to “shape the Church’s theology, preaching, and religious education,” but that when it does, “it will compel a dramatic development of thinking about virtually every major theme in the Creed.”

That’s heady stuff. And he may be right for all I know. But here’s the thing: Once again, we are looking at the opinion of a layman. And it’s that opinion, reverberating through the world of Catholic media after the publication of Witness to Hope — not some magisterial teaching of the Church — that largely accounts for the fact that a lot of Catholics began to get interested in the TOB early in the third millennium.

Once again, I’m not a minimalist who reduces all Catholic faith to magisterial documents. So I don’t have a big problem with the notion that a layperson can get people excited about a new idea. Lots of movements in the Church have been the fruit of a layperson who got all het up about a cool new thing. Sometimes those lay movements have been very fruitful. Sometimes they have been as ephemeral as sea foam. Some personalities tend to seize on the Latest Thing as a Brilliant Revolution. Some tend to be wary of new stuff as always and eternally doomed to perish like mayflies. And so, before you ever get to hearing about the New Thing, people are offering prophecies about its future fortunes. I’m really bad at prophecy, so I have to look at what the thing is, rather than what it will be.


As far as I can tell, and speaking as a total non-expert, the TOB is John Paul’s attempt to direct us to a discussion of the Blessed Trinity and our relationship with Him via our current cultural obsessions with sex. Like a good disciple of Paul, John Paul chose to be all things to all and said to our sex-obsessed, sex-marinated, sex-soaked, sex-fixated, sex-demented culture, “You wanna talk about sex? Okay. Then let’s really talk about sex. Let’s take a good long look at the meaning of sex, pursue where that meaning takes us, and discover man and woman, made in the image and likeness of God.”

Well and good. It’s an insight as old as the sacrament of marriage, and I’m foursquare in favor of trying to articulate that. I figure the culture is going to obsess about sex no matter what, so there should be a Catholic voice in that discussion.

The danger is that it’s fatally easy to get things turned around, as the pagans incessantly did. Pagans, after all, recognized that there was something sacred about sex, too. But the mistake they made was to see sex not as sacramental, but as a sort of god. The very essence of paganism is to worship the creature as the Creator. And sex, being all about the creation of new life, is particularly easy to confuse with the Lord, the Giver of Life. So while John Paul avoided the pitfall, I’m not stunned when the TOB discussions I have seen sometimes wind up making the subtle mistake of ceasing to use sex as a doorway into talking about God and instead use God as a doorway into talking about sex.

Now, there is a place for talking about sex as Catholics. But it seems to me we have to be cautious, and that incautiousness can be a particularly high-yield explosive here, as West himself discovered in his unfortunate imbroglio after ABC interviewed him. I pretty much share Jimmy Akin’s take on this in that I regard West as, quite obviously, seeking to serve the Church — and as having flubbed things with his praises of Hugh Hefner. But “flubbed” is the operative word: He clearly is trying to think with the Church but faces the danger of all pioneers: He doesn’t quite know where he’s going and can make missteps sometimes.

For this reason, those who direct their dementia and hatred at West (and at all who do not share their dementia and hatred of West) seem to me to be wildly out of touch with reality in their hysterical tendency to treat West as the incarnation of evil in the universe, and in their tendency to see the TOB fans as an evil cabal. It seems clear that Christopher West, like most of the exponents of the TOB, is excitedly exploring a new region of thought opened up for us by the late Holy Father, and that they are faithfully attempting to apply these ideas to life in a spirit of fidelity to the Church. They may make mistakes sometimes (as who does not?), but they are obviously trying to be as docile as they know how to the Church.


But, by the same token, those who regard the TOB as the Greatest Thing Ever or who treat it or its exponents as beyond question also make me feel leery. I once talked to somebody who tended to say things like, “The Theology of the Body has the answer for Everything!” He was a marvelously gifted exponent and explorer of this school of theology. I owe him a great debt for giving me quite a number of wise, healing, and profound insights about the place of gender in our theology. But at the end of the day, I can’t agree that the Theology of the Body has an answer for Everything. That’s because I don’t believe three things necessary in order to sign off on that claim.

First, I don’t believe that even the fullness of revelation of Jesus Christ in the Catholic Faith has an answer for Everything. It is ideology, not the mystery of Faith, that claims to be able to explain Everything. The Faith presents us with mystery, not with the answer to every question. It tells us what we need to know to be saved; it tells us very little about the average airspeed of an unladen European swallow, or what we should do about auditing the Fed, or about a million other facets of Everything.

Second, even if the Faith did have an answer for Everything (which it doesn’t), it would be the only candidate for fulfilling that claim, since it alone is the full revelation of Almighty God. The only way the TOB could therefore have an answer for Everything would be if a) the Faith had an answer for Everything, and b) the TOB were identical to and coterminous with the Catholic Faith. But it’s not. Indeed, no mere school of theology is. That’s a claim nobody would dare make even for Thomism, which has a much greater claim to be identified with the Catholic faith than the TOB does.

Third, if the TOB were really identical to and coterminous with the Faith itself, that would mean that questioning or rejecting it would be tantamount to questioning or rejecting the Catholic Faith itself. This is simply not so.

I recognize that such language about “having an answer for Everything” is just an expression of enthusiasm for a way of looking at the Faith that can be and is very fruitful. When I pointed out the problems with the statement, my friend quickly ratcheted back his rhetoric, because he saw the justice of my point. I merely mention it here to illustrate that, in talking about something that is rightly and properly a subject for legitimate diversity of opinion, people need to remember that enthusiastic love, like enthusiastic hatred, can bring more heat than light to a discussion sometimes. And it can give frenzied and irrational haters of the TOB another excuse to become more frenzied and irrational, just as frenzied and irrational hatred of the TOB or West causes their defenders to become more wildly and intractably defensive. As C. S. Lewis says, “Opposite evils, so far from balancing, aggravate each other.”

Of course, not everybody finds it impossible to discuss the matter rationally. West himself seems to me to be largely level-headed, as do such critics as David Schindler and Dawn Eden, or the TOB defenders such as Dr. Janet Smith and Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve. It is notable that the main thing to pay attention to here is that the quarrel is primarily (at present) not so much about the TOB as about Christopher West, since he is the main conduit through which the TOB is being articulated to the English-speaking world. What we know of the TOB we know largely because of him. That will remain the case, whether for good or ill, till John Paul is more widely read or till more voices articulating the TOB become prominent and give us other portraits of the late Holy Father’s thought on the matter.


The TOB is, I believe, a classic example of healthy intellectual ferment in the life of the Church. Some people are dismayed by the fuss over the question — as though it bespeaks a “lack of unity” in the life of the Church. But never was G. K. Chesterton more accurate when he said that Catholics agree about everything, and that it is only everything else they disagree about. Most of the parties arguing about the TOB are arguing, so far as I can see, out of a desire to be faithful to the Church. All they are quarreling about is how to be faithful, not whether to be faithful. And, with the exception of some extreme voices out at the end of the bell curve, they seem to be arguing charitably — assuming the best and not the worst about those with whom they differ. That’s how Catholics should argue. And we should pray for the few extremists who refuse to extend charity.

As for how those of us who are largely on the outside of the argument looking in should proceed, I think a few practical questions are in order.

First, is this something that you need to bother your head with? In my case, I’ve mostly opted for “No” since I am a married man, living in fidelity to the Church’s moral teaching. When you are living the theology of the body, there is often not a burning need to know more about it, though it would be good to learn if you are going to be entrusted with teaching it.

If you decide that you do want to know about the TOB and are baffled by the quarrels, then what? Well, the obvious thing is to go get John Paul’s talks and learn straight from the horse’s mouth. The upside: You won’t have to get it filtered through interpreters (except, of course, for the interpreter known as the Translator). The downside: Get ready for John Paul’s less-than-accessible style, which is why people often turn to interpreters like West in the first place. John Paul is not an easy read.

If you are inclined to despair at this point, don’t. You rely on interpreters every time you read some premodern, non-English text such as the Bible. And West, while he is the predominant interpreter, is not alone. Enough people are now writing and talking about the TOB who, while they may not be as famous as West, still give you data whereby you can build up a picture of this (still growing) school of theology as you might build up a picture of Thomism without necessarily knowing Latin or reading Thomas in the original.

Most of all, a sane way to approach the matter is not so much to spend all your time reading the quarrels about the TOB — especially those in cyberspace, which tend more toward heat than light — but to immerse yourself in the whole Tradition, of which the TOB is an extremely small part. People who are jittery about getting counterfeit money are wasting their time if they do nothing but contemplate all the possible permutations of a counterfeit. Instead, look at genuine money and you will spot the bad bills quickly. There’s a lot more to the Tradition than the TOB, whether genuine or imitation. Learn that Tradition, and you will be able to smell if something is amiss in somebody’s exposition of the TOB.

If you do smell something amiss, don’t panic or declare it to be the fruit of somebody’s monstrous will to subvert and destroy the Faith. Assume “blunder” before “diabolical plot.” Conversely, if you find something fruitful, good, and beautiful in the TOB, don’t run off and declare it a revolution in Catholic thought that will provide an All-Explaining Paradigm of Everything in Time, Space, and Eternity. It’s a human school of thought, not the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith.

In a word, relax. It’s just somebody’s opinion, not the End of the World or the Consummation of All Things.

Mark P. Shea


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

  • bill bannon

    and you did it well. The relative binding authority levels of diverse papal modes of communication are most often ignored on the net in the name of
    being “faithful”. In other centuries (the late 15th), that fostered the entrance of Portuguese into the slave trade thanks to Pope Nicholas V. And they had a written “bull” supporting them on “perpetual slavery” if the gospel was rejected. Ironically Brazil still has the highest number of uncontacted tribes on earth…67. So evangelization…primary to Nicholas V in his unfortunate paradigm…became tertiary to those “faithful” on the slavery detail of the bull.

  • thomas

    I don’t think that theology of the body is really all that new. As I recall, something of the sort (the idea that our bodies are our way of “being” in the world — which, I think, the starting point for TOB — can be found in thinkers like the late Gabriel Marcel and their rejection of Cartesian dualism.

  • Mike

    I very well agree that the TOB is a very young movement in thought and is justly so. Much of the moral capital of the modern Western states has been pretty much been burning for a while now. JPII tried to build something new and it’s been tough in erecting something that could hold civilization together. I find Christopher West, as a proponent of JPII’s thoughts, to be refreshing and new. Even if the flow of the ideas at this time regarding TOB may be likened to a stream compared to a river at this time (in its global impact), it is worth noticing and being refreshed by it.

  • Jen

    Pitch-perfect. Thanks for taking this subject on! Things definitely got heated around here after that West-Hefner debacle.

    I was given a copy of Michael Waldstein’s new translation of JPII’s original documents on TOB, entitled “Male and Female He Created Them.” I was very excited about it…but I have to admit it’s still sitting on my shelf, unread. I’m intimidated — reading the Holy Father often feels like wading through pea soup.

  • Aaron

    While I would certainly agree that the utterances on the TOB do not rank particularly high among the levels of magisterial teaching and thus could most certainly be wrong, I am highly suspicious of trying to divorce the pope’s general audiences from his magisterial teaching. The magisterium is the teaching office, thus that teaching is magisterial which is publically articulated in the course of exercising that teaching office. I don’t know precisely how John Paul presented his theories in those audiences – I also have never bothered to read them. He could have said at the outset that “This is an idea I’ve been kicking around” or “This is my personal take on things; you might find it helpful.” Those sorts of signals would make it clear that we were listening to the opinions of a private theologian, much like our current pope’s books on Jesus. Without those clear indicators, though, we ought to recognize that preaching – which is precisely what these general audiences are – is an exercise of one’s teaching authority. In fact, the Catechism tells us most germanely that “The Magisterium of the Pastors of the Church in moral matters is ordinarily exercised in catechesis and preaching, with the help of the works of theologians and spiritual authors (CCC 2033).” You are wisely trying to make helpful distinctions so as to improve the conflicted situation of the TOB, but you are also running the risk of distinguishing the truth right out of sight.

  • Patrick

    Firstly, I can’t agree more with your point that TOB and the recent discussions have been in part greatly overblown. I say in part, because there is a place for the healthy dialogue between faithful/Theologians, but at the same time the ammount of emotion that permiates the debate sometimes overwhelms the content of the debate itself.
    Secondly, I can’t disagree more with your intreptation of TOB as a whole. As you said yourself, “As far as I can tell, and speaking as a total non-expert, the TOB is John Paul’s attempt to direct us to a discussion of the Blessed Trinity and our relationship with Him via our current cultural obsessions with sex”. If you have not read the document, please do not make comments on the document. John Paul II intended the TOB to be an anthropological document reinforcing the points made with the vatican II documents specifically Gaudium et Spes. What was communicated through the TOB was further reinforced in Papal encyclicals throughout his pontificate.
    Knowing many of the people involved in these debates including West, I can say that both sides have valid points. West is encouraging the Theologians to use modes of communication which reach popular culture and those on the popsing side are cautioning West to remember the indent of the Document. Talks on Sexuality only constitute a small part of this document and are further expounded in love and responsibility.
    To know the fulness of what was revealed in TOB you have to know the Faith, because noting new was revealed. The information was just presented in a new way. Tob is not the end-all, but supports the new mode the “new evangelization” to reach our generation with the fullness of the Catholic faith which has been the focus of both JPII and Benidict XVI.
    In Short TOB, our Faith, who we are, calls us to love and recognize the dignity of every person. Love God, Love our neighbor. If our dialogue centers around this point, we are on the right track.

  • SC

    Mr. Shea,
    I do not see your piece today as peace-making or brilliant. You are not as objective as you claim to be and I think your piece is misleading. I am offended at your thinly veiled references to a

  • Jane

    Thank you, Mark, for a thought-provoking and timely essay.

    As someone who has actually read John Paul II’s theology of the body – in its entirety – I would like to encourage others to take the plunge! Although it is hard work, it is immensely rewarding. Reading the text itself makes it clear that TOB is not *just* about sex or even sexual morality – it’s a deep and beautiful reflection about being an embodied human person and about the call to self-gift (in either marriage or celibacy).

    I would also like to recommend an accessible introduction to TOB: “Called to Love” by Fr. Jose Granados and Carl Anderson. The authors include some of JPII’s poetry and much of his philosophical anthropology as a way to enter into TOB. In my opinion, they maintain the ‘big picture’ of TOB successfully.

    As a final comment, although you are right, Mark, that TOB is not a magisterial document, I do think that several of JPII’s encyclicals are marked with its vision of the human person and human community, particuarly Familiaris Consortio and Mulieris Dignitatem. And TOB’s commentary on Humanae Vitae lends added richness to Paul VI’s crucial encyclical.

    Thank you again.

  • Mark P. Shea

    You are not as objective as you claim to be and I think your piece is misleading. I am offended at your thinly veiled references to a

  • Lindsay

    “I’m not stunned when the TOB discussions I have seen sometimes wind up making the subtle mistake of ceasing to use sex as a doorway into talking about God and instead use God as a doorway into talking about sex.”

    Absolutely. And I think it is the “subtlety” of this which makes it such a difficult issue to address.

  • fajashua

    Mark, great piece as usual, and synthetic of the gamut of my mental and emotional responses when I’m often asked about “the debate.” While I suspect it’s owing to a word/space limit here, I think your counter-claim to Waldstein’s argument about the level of authority deserves expanding. As you may be aware (or not, being an “outsider”) Waldstein argues rather definitively that a relatively high level of magisterium be attached to TOB since it represents papal catechesis, and as such, “the Wednesday catecheses have a certain primacy of place in the ordinary magisterium of the Bishop of Rome as pastor of the universal Church.” (Introduction, Man & Woman He Created Them, 14) He justifies this according to both Vatican II’s teaching on the Bishops, Christus Dominus, 13; as well as John Paul’s own teaching on catechesis, Catechesi Tradendae 5,7.

    While only raving fools would accord that kind of authority (not to say that measure) to Mr. West, Waldstein, a distinguished theologian, makes a pretty good argument that the Wednesday Audiences are not the sort of private theologizing that either Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict have done in their books. Although, it may be worth noting Waldstein’s own admission lately that John Paul originally intended to publish TOB as a book, only converting it to the Wednesday Audience format when his papal advisers simply decreed to him that popes don’t publish books!

    Keep it real, Mark! In Christ,


  • SC

    Mr. Shea,
    With all due respect, I think your comment is misleading. I did not recommend anyone other than Alice Von Hildebrand and the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate. To dismiss my opinion on the basis of something I did not say is not clear thinking. I am glad you recommend AVH on your blog. I discovered her on EWTN and I have found her work to be beautiful and very uplifting. She helped me understand the origins of feminism and how negative the effects have been on our culture. I recommend her books to friends all the time. I think AVH deserved to be mentioned in this topic on this site where she is a regular and respected contributor.
    Thank you,

  • Mark P. Shea

    I’m glad you are not defending Kellmeyer’s crazy, bitter and self-pitying vituperations. Since he was the one referred to in the quote of yours I cut and pasted, I assumed you were. And I’m sorry I neglected to mention AVH. As I say, the subject is not a burning passion for me, so I mentioned the first people who popped into my head as typical representatives of the Sanity-Based Community on both sides of the question. Probably the reason for my choice is that I have met both Schindler and Eden and have never had the honor of meeting AVH.

    Mind you, I don’t buy some of AVH’s critiques. But I have no doubt that she is motivated by charity. And that counts for an awful lot in my book.

  • Steve Pable

    Mark, thanks for your reasoned and thoughtful contribution.

    Sorry for the long comment here, but this is adapted from a paper I wrote that attempted in part to get at this question of how to view the Theology of the Body. It includes an excerpt from his own words.

    The late Holy Father gave some indication as to how the TOB was to be received. In concluding the monumental five-year cycle of audiences, he said:
    ‘One must immediately observe, in fact, that the term

  • Ken

    The bottom line with Theology of the Body is educating a woman having sex in order to prevent a child.

    One can say it’s about empowerment, or knowledge, or whatever. Some even say it’s about having more children, as if a married couple needs a thermometer and chart to produce a kid. But the vast majority of TOB is about birth control. Natural, “Catholic” birth control. Every reason is “grave.” After all, it’s better than using “artificial” birth control!

    This is why the subject sparks fireworks. It really is that simple.

  • Austin

    I see all this legalistic wrestling over birth control, both artificial and NFP. Other than some Bishops and a few Rad Trad laymen, 95% of Catholics could care less. It’s not unlike the arguments in the Middle Ages by monks debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Very few people care, plain and simple.

  • Mark P. Shea

    Just as you should be highly skeptical when people say “The Theology of the Body has an answer for everything”, so you you should be highly skeptical when people reduce TOB to some unbelievable and preposterous claim like “It’s about birth control” and then declare “It’s that simple.”

    Right. Over a hundred lectures from JPII are neatly and easily boiled down to “Use NFP.” Mhmm.

  • Matt G

    Not sure why the comments are veering off on this tangent, but the Theology of the Body has almost nothing to do with Natural Family Planning. Granted both of these topics usually come up in any discussion of Catholic sexual morality, but JP2’s series of discussions was intended to use sex to tell us something about God, not defend NFP.

  • Carl Olson

    First, good thoughts, Mark, especially re: the larger context of TOB and its place in Catholic teaching. I’ve read TOB and studied it in some depth in pursuing my MTS, and I think very highly of it. It challenges readers to consider and contemplate a host of important truths and realities (the Trinity, Creation, marriage, sex, the Beatitudes, virginity, eschatology, etc.) and their relationship to one another.

    The bottom line with Theology of the Body is educating a woman having sex in order to prevent a child.

    Truly the most idiotic thing I’ve read today. Of course, I’ve not yet visited Huffington Post today, so there might be competition…

  • Bender

    There is no encyclical on the TOB

    Each of these magisterial documents of Pope John Paul II contain elements of the Theology of the Body —
    Familiaris Consortio
    The Letter to Families
    The Letter to Women
    The Dignity and Vocation of Women

    And then there are the curial documents, including —

    Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the collaboration of men and women in the Church and in the world, by Cardinal Ratzinger (CDF)
    The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality (Pontifical Council for the Family)
    Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage (same)

    Not only are elements of TOB included in each of these, TOB is rather foundational to them.

    And Wednesday audiences and Angelus addresses and papal homilies each carry magisterial weight. Pope John Paul II did not spend a few years of his life wasting everyone’s time with musing opinion. In his capacity as Pope, he was a teacher (in Latin, Magister), and the theology that he developed and taught on regarding the body formed a major portion of his thinking in his entire papacy — TOB is infused all over the place.

  • julian


  • Bender

    It should further be noted that JP2’s theology of the body is NOT entirely about human sexuality. That was merely his first and main application of it. Rather, the theology of the body, God revealing certain truths by and through the human body, is about the nature of the human person, as well as telling us something about the nature of God. Man, as revealed by God in our bodies as male and female, is a social creature who is made for loving communion in truth, a love which is both unitive and fruitful, just as God is a loving communion of persons in one divine nature, and just as the Church is a loving communion of persons in One Body. This truth about man and God applies to the entirety of the Faith, not just sex.

  • Bender

    To be sure, Pope Benedict has included elements of TOB in his teachings. The nature of man, male and female, reveals that we are each made for a “spousal” kind of love, the kind of love that brings about communion, unitive and fruitful, and Pope Benedict has often spoken of this spousal model on everything from the Trinity, to Creation, to Salvation History, to Jesus the Bridegroom and the Church the Bride, to interpersonal human relations today.

    The thing about the Theology of the Body is that it is so pervasive that many people already know it and simply do not even realize that they already know it. As has been said above, there really is not very much that is “new” in TOB. JP2 merely provided a new focus, a new emphasis on certain things, connecting a few dots and tying up a couple of strings that have been lying dormant for centuries.

    If you’ve read JP2’s encyclicals and other magisterial documents, you already know the gist of TOB. So, when you get up the courage to tackle the disjointed Wednesday audiences (and please get the new and vastly more clear and improved translation), when you get halfway through, you will realize that you already know this.

  • Matt C. Abbott

    Here’s a critique, written by Father Angelo Mary Geiger, of Father Thomas Loya’s presentation of Theology of the Body:

  • Bob

    I liked some of Christopher West’s work on the TOB. I look at it as almost a conversion story of someone (West) drowning in the cesspool of our contraceptive laced, pornographic society (like a lot of us) and after studying the beauty of JPII’s TOB saw the beauty and light of Truth of Jesus Christ. I don’t think West ever described himself as a theologian, but as an “Everyman” that said “Look, people, at this incredible Truth in the TOB…’s much better than the garbage we’re being shovel-fed from our society.” West’s tapes certainly helped turn me around…….made me look at my marriage and women as a whole differently. They helped me reject society’s pornographic, women as objects view of sexuality. Bravo, Christopher…….

  • MM

    Nicely done, Mark. You do tend to throw us into the extreme camps but I understand why you would. I consider myself in the middle; loving TOB and not at all liking West’s version.

    Other than online discussion, I have yet to hear a dissenting voice to West’s version of TOB, other than my own, in my Catholic community. Quite frankly, as one commenter already pointed out, most Catholics simply don’t care, haven’t heard of either TOB or West, or are too busy trying to become sterile in one way or another. I generally stay quiet on the topic.

    The proponents I know are very enthusiastic to the point of making me uncomfortable. I certainly don’t consider myself prudish but I’m getting a little tired of West fans steering topics of conversation into the “blush zone.” I never used to blush when I was a worldly pagan. I converted and had to retrain my sensitivities. Now I’m finding myself trying to avoid faithful Catholic males who want to talk to me (a female) about sex! It’s cool now, you know? Catholic cool. I’m married with a bunch of kids. So are they. Why do they want to talk to me about that which belongs in our bedrooms…in the safety and beauty and sanctity of marital intimacy? Why do they want to blow the whole thing open and ruin the beautiful serenity and gentleness and mystery that marriage defends? It reminds me of little boys trying out swear words for the first time and finding it titillating. So they say them a little louder. Then they say them to girls to gauge reactions.

    I have no beef with TOB. I actually think JPII’s version is rather important. But something about the new presentation of it (ie West?) has made me feel dirty in my own home, the Church. Not because I’m dirty or sex is dirty; but because this beautiful and precious thing that I have come to understand properly for the first time in my life is being carelessly pulled through the muck of popularity and the garish neon of fad. Why do I blush? A better question is why an adult Catholic male would ever look me in the eyes and bring up bedroom details or make flippant jokes to my husband and me about our bedroom life. hahaha…blush…blush. Why am I made to feel like a prude for not wanting to have these discussions in mixed company?

    Authentic conversion most often comes through relationship and not through large ministry. Individuals use the tools of ministry to reach people they have relationship with. The Spirit works strongly through the love, service and gentle challenge that we offer to each other. The danger with a large and faddish form of ministry that deals with such incredibly sensitive and dangerous topics is that a large percentage of those who fall into line simply won’t get it right. It becomes simply a green light to talk about sex and also a potential avenue of temptation.

    I have no personal beef with West although I disagree with some of his methods. I see conversions happening and marriages healing. But I also see a lot people not getting the message in quite the right way. One person gets it right, 3 get it wrong. I see that a lot of his followers (particularly men) are misunderstanding the openness of the discussion and using it as a way to titillate instead of defend. I am noticing a very obvious decrease in modesty in speech among faithful Catholic adults and custody of the eyes (again, among men). I would not relate these to West at all except for the fact that the most frequent offenders I know are also his strongest advocates. I am sure this is not the case with every man. I am also certain that there are too many West enthusiasts in my area who make me feel like putting on a Burka. I know that this is not West’s intent nor would he encourage such behavior. I know men here don’t likely do these things. But it is a danger and we shouldn’t ignore it just because of the strength of our personal strengths and preferences.

    Bring on TOB! Gently, respectfully, discreetly, quietly…and very, very carefully.

  • Tim

    Great article Mark! Thank you for your level headedness and not going into tirades of name calling and malice thinking for West as a person. There is one clarification I hope you will make sometime in the future; it is the statement of TOB not being magisterial teaching. Are you saying that it does not fit into the three (or four) levels of magisterial teaching? I like West and have read and seen his lectures. Frankly, I didn

  • Lea

    What a truly “catholic” trail of responses to your article. Everyone is there giving forth (including myself). I attended the TOB Congress in PA and found it fascinating. And despite their fervor and mild-to-wildness, it was admirable to see so many people trying to mine the richness of TOB in order to apply its principles to their varied interests and apostolates. I do expect over the years that it will contribute greatly to how we understand our relationship to God and one another, and how we understand our own makeup as “image and likeness.” Thanks for the forum and the foment. We are nothing if not engaged. Blessings, Lea.

  • Deirdre Mundy

    Mark – Thank you for this article. I regularly horrify my friends by proclaiming utter indifference to TOB and NFP. (We’ll bother with NFP if things stop working and we need to chart to figure out what’s wrong. As it is, God seems to have us on the ‘baby every 2 years plan’… and it’s a good plan for us!)

    So now I can say “Well, Mark Shea agrees with ME” and get them to stop pushing West on me. smilies/wink.gif

    Love and Responsibility IS a hard read. I’d like to offer an easier one without West’s abrasive style:

    If you really want to explore the Trinity through marriage and the family (and the gift of marriage through the Trinity), try Fulton Sheen’s “Three to Get Married.” It’s really the same point as a lot of Theology of the Body–just…less sexy.

    In fact, part of the reason I’m fairly indifferent to Theology of the Body is that it’s NOT new and revolutionary. As far as I can tell, it’s what the Church has ALWAYS taught. Check out Fr. Kinsella’s “Wife Desired” and “Man for Her” from the EWTN library:

    Fr. Kinsella was on the Archdiocesan Marriage tribunal for Chicago. He wrote these books as a corrective to problems he was seeing in the wake of WW2 marriages.

    TOB was NOT a major break or revolution in Catholic thinking on sex and marriage… like so much theology, it was simply a reiteration.

    Anyway– thanks again for this piece… I’ll keep it handy to give to people when they harangue me for being a bad Catholic. smilies/wink.gif

  • Rob Skrobola

    I see all this legalistic wrestling over birth control, both artificial and NFP. Other than some Bishops and a few Rad Trad laymen, 95% of Catholics could care less. It’s not unlike the arguments in the Middle Ages by monks debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Very few people care, plain and simple.


    THIS is the problem. To call those that are using NFP unfaithful, and to focus on arguments about what is “grave” and what isn’t is to talk about having a hang-nail when your house is on fire.

    Everyone together, both pro-Westian TOB and anti, comprises a small, growing, faithful group of Catholics. We can’t effect change in what has become “catholic” (note the small c) culture if the public face of our discussion is to destroy each other.

    Stop looking at the hangnail, and grab a bucket.


  • Tim

    Thanks Deirdre for your suggestions. Another book that does a great job speaking about Marriage, NFP, contraception, infertility and a host of other issues is Kimberly Hahn

  • Elisa

    And to be fair, he does quote JPII quite often in his books, so I know at least that parts of the boojum he describes match what JPII said. TOB as described by Christopher West was instrumental in bringing me to a fuller understanding and full acceptance of the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality at a crucial time in my life (as a single, dating, then engaged and newly married 21 year old).

    As we’ve now been married 7 years and have our fourth baby on the way, West’s particular description of Catholic teaching and JPII’s TOB has gotten less important and the living of the reality of Catholic marriage has taken the forefront. That being said, I will always be grateful that God used Mr. West to bring both me and my now-husband into understanding and acceptance of the beauty of Catholic teaching. Our marriage would be very different these days otherwise.

  • Steve Bonham

    “Wispering down the lane” best describes much of the assessments of Christopher West’s work. Dawn Eden’s absurd contention that West would actually think TOB is a “revolution”–in that it’s a break from the Tradition, and even the great Mark Shea’s statement that West praised Hefner, which he never did–are but two of dozen of examples of misconceptions. Please, everyone, remember that perpetuating information that you do not know for sure is a violation of a Commandment. I like West’s work very much, but I’m really writing here in an effort to have at least be fair to the man. He is a human being–and a Catholic one–after all.

  • Sharon

    at least be fair to the man

    Have you noticed that while Catholics who dissent from the teachings of the Church present a united front; they all agree on what is wrong with the Church and all groups send the same message, so called Faithful Catholics spend an inordinate amount of time savaging other Faithful Catholics and thus have less impact on people because all that is seen is squabbling and contradiction.

  • Helen J.

    created by God to counteract abusive overpopulation by straights! Not only did God create XX Eve and XY Adam, God also created infertile XXY Steve and XXYY Stephanie, and a zillion other gender variations in between — many being the result of polyspermy fertilizations of defective older eggs from NFP failures and microchimerism from older siblings. God also gave women 450 known abortifacient plants (including coffee!) to save them from deadly obstetric fistulas and their unwanted surplus kids from priest molestation. That’s MY TOB — based on biological REALITY.

  • Richard P.

    I think this is an excellent discussion with many excellent points. I agree with the posters above pointing out that parts of TOB “resurfaces” in many of JPIIs letters and encyclicals. Also, TOB is not “revolutionary” in what it says, but rather in how JPII puts it all together.

    The recent translation of TOB by Michael Waldstein, Man and Woman He Created Them, and West’s revisied book, Theology of the Body Explained, both have Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur. This does NOT mean that these are Catholic teachings. However, it does mean that they contain nothing contrary to Catholic faith or morals.

    That being said, one can dislike West’s writings, choice of words, or his style. But JPII writings are difficult to understand by many people and people who interpret TOB for us perform a valuable service.

    If one does not like West’s style or choice of words, they can read many of the other fine works about TOB that are available. His books are not “one size fits all”. If one thinks JPII’s TOB is awful or difficult to understand, then they are free to read something else about theology. This reminds me of the “discussions” about NAB vs. NRSV vs. D-R vs. NJB, etc… smilies/sad.gif

    If you find TOB helpful, GREAT! If you find it distasteful, move on to something else… Personally, I think TOB is incredible. There is a LOT of important topics that will take years to understand it all… I found West’s treatment of TOB enlightning and helpful. Various other authors about TOB have put me to sleep.

    (To Helen J. – You should read TOB because it does address intersex people.)

  • Lauretta

    Lots of great posts here. That is a testament to your treatment of the subject, Mr. Shea. I find so many of your articles to be so insightful and presenting an often not popular view on various topics–such as the Iraq war. Thanks for all of the great work.

    I am going to take exception to one portion of your article in which you discuss the importance of TOB. I have taken the opinion that this teaching must be pretty important to have the Church set up institutes strategically throughout the world to study and teach this work. If I heard correctly, the only other institutes that the Church has established have been to study the Bible.

    I agree with some of the posters that this teaching is much broader than is sometimes portrayed. It has to do with what it means to be a human with a body created in the image of God. Ultimately it is showing us how to love as God loves but touches on so many aspects of our faith–creation, sin, redemption, sacraments, etc.–and makes the truths of our faith “fit together” in a way that I did not understand before.

    I hope that the divergent voices can soon come together in agreement so that we can disseminate this teaching in all its beauty and richness to a world dying for the truth. Not that the truth has changed but that the truth as taught by TOB seems to be something that people today are capable of hearing and understanding.

  • David L Alexander

    I’ve read a lot about TOB. I’ve even taken a class for it taught by Mary Ellen Bork (who is a great teacher, but sadly I had to drop out of the class). My first inclination about this subject, being who I am, is the cynical approach: someone found an excuse to publish a book and go on a lecture tour. I imagine it’s more than that, though.

    Still, for all the talk about it, I have yet to hear anything that is either succinct, or which I haven’t heard before. Perhaps the real novelty about TOB is that it is not novelty at all, but is simply a part of the tradition of the Church, explained from a different angle. No, I haven’t read it, but I did read some of “Love and Responsibility,” which was the result of Bishop Karol Wojtyla’s extensive pastoral work, especially with young couples. There is another article that I read years ago, from a little known author who lives in Minnesota or Wisconsin somewhere, that explains the whole thing in two pages. I don’t believe it is on the internet, but if I ever find it among my notes, it will be.

    Then others besides myself can save themselves a lot of time. Until then, Mark’s paragraph that begins “As far as I can tell, and speaking as a total non-expert, the TOB is …” was enough for me.

  • Kevin M. Tierney


    I think it would be inaccurate when you say “The Church” has setup “TOB institutes.” Rule number one about “The Church.” “The Church” is not a person. She does not “found” things. The Church may lend their support, but in the end, she is not “the founder” of these institutes.

    I see a lot of good coming on both sides though. (Though I’m small potoatos, consider me in the I really question a lot of what West does crowd.) On the “Westian” side of things, a lot of people are showing interest in the writing of a Pope, and doing their best to make it accessible. This is a good thing.

    On the side of his critics, they are doing their best to show that TOB is entirely consistent with Church teaching. In this, they are reminding people of the great treasures that the Church has always had in fighting these issues. Gives people more weapons to have in the arsenal so to speak. This also brings back some discussions that, for one reason or another, have faded into the background lately. (The positive purpose of modesty, the importance of the Incarnation, etc.)

    A lot of people are just sorta waiting to see what Mr. West does when he is done with his break. Where does he sit in all of this which has, at the very least, given him an ego boost? smilies/smiley.gif

  • Marty W.

    I was told by a priest who studied with Waldstein (the author of the definitive TOB text in English) that Pope John Paul II chose not to publish the TOB in a separate book – as he did with “Love and Responsibility” or as Pope Benedict XVI did with his recent “Jesus of Nazareth” – and delivered it as Audiences precisely because he was acting in his capacity as the Bishop of Rome. In other words, it was not Karol Wojtyla who delivered the TOB, but Pope JOhn Paul II himself, with all his invested Magisterial authority. It’s not “infallible dogma” but it is certainly an official teaching of the Church.

  • Lauretta

    Sorry, Kevin, the Pope founded the institutes and key members of the hierarchy are in charge of it. Sometimes I make the mistake of equating the two in my speech.

    I find it interesting that you say that talk about modesty has fallen into the background. Whenever I get into a discussion of TOB invariably it evolves into a discussion about modesty. Somewhat frustrating since the topic is quite a lot broader than that.

    Marty, interesting information about the method of delivery of TOB. I always thought that the Wednesday audiences were something a little more substantial than just a time of chit chat with the Pope!

  • Kevin M. Tierney

    One of the reasons it inevitably comes up is those from my ilk that stress it. smilies/smiley.gif

    The discussion of modesty is absolutely central to any discussion of this. Modesty ultimately explains not who we are, but the consequences of who we are. How do we live our life in accordance with the meaning of our bodies, our souls (you can’t really seperate the two but just including it), basically as human beings? It’s a lot more than just the way we dress. It involves why we dress the way we do, why we act the way we do, what we expect out of ourselves, others, etc.

    If anything TOB adds an important contribution (whether or not it is strictly magesterial is utterly besides the point) to the discussion on modesty. Some people fear that modesty is defined downward by the likes of West and company, that it is simply done for “negative” reasons (i.e. to avoid sin.) A lot of the times, the “positive” aspects of modesty are ignored in these discussions. this is what has been contributed by those like AVH, Fr. Geiger, Dawn Eden, etc. It isn’t that people like this “defend prudery” as they are sometimes accused. They are operating at a stage well beyond prudery. Any comparison between the two is strictly accidental.

  • Lauretta

    Interesting, Kevin, because it was from listening to Mr. West’s explanation of TOB that I understood the positive meaning of modesty and all of the things that you mentioned. It seems to me that what Mr. West tries to do to a degree is to take that positive understanding of modesty toward ourselves, and apply it to others in order to change how we see them, leading to a custody of the eyes that controls not what we see as much as how we see.

    Since we live in a culture in which the majority of women in particular are dressing immodestly, by most standards, to take custody of the eyes and not look at them would seem to be nearly impossible to accomplish, not to mention making us quite ineffectual in the world. It would seem that it would be necessary to see past the immodest dress or behavior to the person herself, to see her as an individual created in the image of God and therefore possessing great dignity.

    One of the reasons I object to excessive talk of modesty in dress is that it is too easy to use the immodest dress as an excuse to not overcome lust. We must become virtuous no matter what the people around us are doing. When struggling with this issue, it is easy to put the blame on others rather than facing the fact that the core of the problem is within ourselves.

  • Mimi

    Here’s how the overly-modest problem susses out. Have you read this article that Mark Shea linked to, about potential dating?:

    In some ways, there lies the beginnings of TOB. And I believe that those who insist on scrupulous (and unrealistic, imo) standards of modesty would object to the language here. (One is never allowed to use the phrase “have sex”, e.g.)
    It’s just too informal for some when anything regarding the “intimate sphere” must be discussed…but I do get the sense that there is a tremendous reluctance to introduce the subject of the “intimate sphere” and some would just wish it would be limited to hushed words inside a confessional.

    But the biggest thing that confuses me is, has anyone here read “Thrill of the Chaste”? Subtle, shy, Victorian, retiring language it ain’t.

  • John Jakubczyk

    Mark, great article – you can tell by the amount of commentary that follows.

    I remember reading John Paul’s Wednesday audiences when they were first compiled by the Daughters of St. Paul soon after they were given in 1979 and 1980. (That makes me old…er.) Reading then slowly as a meditation, along side Genesis, was the means that I used to gain the most from his presentation. It was very helpful as I prepared for the married state which was to happen three years later. That it was not widely known or read I attributed to the new pope’s serious style of prose. I compared reading the late pope to chewing caramel – very tasty – very thick.

    As for the controversy, I concur that sensible folks can differ on these subjects without disagreeing that every couple needs to actively involve God in their married life. Since God gives each couple the way and the means to address these very personal issues with His very person, it provides a powerful testimony to the presence of God in our lives.

  • Sr. M. Lorraine

    Thanks, Mark, for your excellent article, and for your kind mention of my small attempt to discuss the issues in a reasonable way.
    I might also add that TOB is applicable to those in consecrated life as well as the married. For myself, it’s helped me greatly to a better understanding of the vow of chastity.

  • Sharon

    Bill, would you provide me with a link to the bull written by Nicholas V. I mean a link to the actual bull, not a link to someone talking about the bull. The link where you yourself had read the bull would be good.