"Theology of the Body Explained" – Review

From September 1979 through November 1984, Pope John Paul II gave a series of weekly talks devoted to human sexuality, a proper understanding of the body, and marriage. The wisdom he expressed—collectively called the “theology of the body”—not only echoed previous Church teaching on human sexuality, but also formed the backbone for modern, Catholic sexual philosophy. But as remarkable as these teachings were, the Pope’s teachings didn’t immediately trickle down to the masses.

John Paul’s intricate philosophy begged to be popularized so that the world could understand it. George Weigel, noted biographer of the Pope, stated that the “theology of the body” is a “theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.” Many people have encouraged this explosion, but few have been associated with its sparking as much as Christopher West. If these teachings are a time bomb, West has ignited the fuse.

West has published two popular, introductory books for students of the “theology of the body”: “Good News About Sex and Marriage” and “Theology of the Body for Beginners”. However, his most comprehensive work is his advanced, in-depth commentary on the entirety of John Paul’s teaching, “Theology of the Body Explained” (Pauline Books, 650 pages, paperback).

While “Theology of the Body Explained” is heavy in both size and substance, the average layperson will find the book much easier to understand than John Paul’s source material. Unlike the Pope’s original teachings, which were thick with heady philosophy, West sprinkles his commentary with stories, personal anecdotes, and pragmatic implications of “the theology of the body”. In this way, “Theology of the Body Explained” acts more as a practical study guide than a theoretical commentary. Also, each chapter features a well-organized review, summarizing the chapter into succinct points. These reviews alone provide a comprehensible overview of the entire “theology of the body”.

Some modern critics of West critique his over-emphasis of the “theology of the body” in relation to the rest of the Faith, along with his loose, sometimes-explicit presentation style. These faults aren’t prominent in this book, but so long as “Theology of the Body Explained” is recognized as one man’s interpretation of the Pope’s teachings, the commentary offers many riches. By no means is West’s commentary the sole interpretation of the Pope’s theology, but it is a solid tool to unpack John Paul’s work.

If you are completely unfamiliar with the “theology of the body”, I suggest picking up one of the two previously mentioned introductory books. But if you are interested in a deeper understanding of the original talks, “Theology of the Body Explained” is a must-read. Coupling this commentary with Michael Waldstein’s English translation of the Pope’s reflections will take you far in the understanding of this monumental theology.

(I wrote this review of Theology Of The Body Explained for the Tiber River Blogger Review program, created by Aquinas and More Catholic Goods, the largest Catholic store online. For more information and to purchase, please visit Aquinas and More Catholic Goods. Tiber River is the first Catholic book review site, started in 2000 to help you make informed decisions about Catholic book purchases. I receive free product samples as compensation for writing reviews for Tiber River.)