One of the immediate issues that parents of a newborn baby boy face is the decision of whether to circumcise their son. An article at STLToday this morning relates that more parents are opting not to do so. Excerpts from the article:
…Circumcision isn’t the automatic procedure it used to be. In the 1960s, circumcision rates peaked at 85 percent. Now, only about half of all baby boys are circumcised, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality…
…In St. Louis, local hospitals report circumcision rates of 75 percent to 90 percent. But there are signs that the trend is making its way here. Doctors say parents are asking more questions about the procedure and thinking more critically about the decision…
…Some religions, including Judaism and Islam, consider circumcision a holy ritual and a connection to previous and future generations. Circumcision as a medical procedure is primarily an American custom, starting with Victorian-era beliefs about cleanliness and chastity, according to historians. The procedure became routine in hospitals in the early 1900s, and continued as the accepted practice for parents and doctors…
Although the practice has religious roots for Judaism and Mohammedanism, there isn’t any religious requirement for a Catholic to be circumcised. This was made clear at the Council of Jerusalem (in the Acts of the Apostles) and is pretty much common knowledge among Catholics.
But is there a duty not to be circumcised? That depends.
The answer depends upon the reasons why it would be done. The Church has, in the past, issued documents on this subject, but there seems to be a paucity of modern Church documentation on this issue.
The following brief article is taken from “The Tablet”, the Brooklyn Diocese’s newspaper, as part of its question box feature. The question and the answer are both informative:
The Morality of Circumcision
BY FATHER JOHN DIETZEN
Q. What is the morality of circumcision? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that amputations and mutilations performed on innocent people without strictly therapeutic reasons are against the moral law.
Pope Pius XII taught that circumcision is morally permissible if it prevents a disease that cannot be countered any other way.
In spite of these and other church statements against circumcision through the centuries, I’m told there is no strict Catholic rule against the practice today. Why not? No medical association in the world today any longer says circumcision is therapeutic. (Ohio)
A. I’m not sure why not, but the fact is male circumcision generally just doesn’t appear very much on the “radar screen” of Catholic moral teaching. Many major moral theology texts don’t mention it. A notable except is “Medical Ethics,” by Father Edwin Healy SJ (Loyal University Press), who holds that since routine circumcisions are not medically defensible they are morally objectionable.
A few observations may help explain. The practice of circumcision arose thousands of years ago and is prevalent in many cultures around the world. Nearly always it has religious or social significance, signifying full membership in the group and establishing one’s social position in the society.
The first divine command to the Jews, for example, was that every male child be circumcised, symbolizing the covenant between God and Abraham (Gn 17).
After the famous confrontation between Paul and other leaders of the early church (Acts 15 and Galatians 2), Christians pretty much rejected the necessity of circumcision for becoming a believer in Christ.
The idea didn’t entirely die, however. The theory that circumcision still held some spiritual benefits even for Christians, prompted at least some of the condemnations you speak of. The Council of Vienne
(1311), for example, decreed that Christians should not be lured into Judaism or be circumcised for any reason.
The following century, the Council of Florence
(1438-1435) ordered “all who glory in the name of Christian not to practice circumcision either before or after baptism, since whether or not they place their hope in it, it cannot possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation.”
Today, while nontherapeutic
male circumcision remains common in some places, as a general practice it is forbidden in Catholic teaching for more basic reasons of respect for bodily integrity
. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against moral law” (N. 2297).
Elective circumcision clearly violates that standard. It is an amputation and mutilation, and, to my knowledge, and as you note, no significant medical group in the world defends it as having any therapeutic value. In 1999 the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association stated that neonatal circumcision is nontherapeutic because no disease is present and no therapeutic treatment is required.
Modern Catholic Church documents do not deal explicitly with the morality of elective circumcision. The above basic principles, however, clearly render it immoral. It violates the bodily integrity of infant male children and unnecessarily deprives them of a part of their body that can protect the glans of the penis during infancy and serve at least a sexual function for adults.
My understanding from physicians is that circumcision rarely if ever arises as an ethical consideration. Usually it is requested by the parents for more social reasons such as, it’s always been done in our family. In that case, the procedure might be carried out in some places rather routinely, even if it is not what the child needs and no curative or remedial reason renders it ethical.
Finally, fisheaters has a post on the subject– warning, it has a somewhat graphically descriptive discussion of the procedure. The author is vehemently against the procedure, and cites the document Cantate Domino as well (…[The Church] strictly orders all who glory in the name of Christian, not to practise circumcision either before or after baptism, since whether or not they place their hope in it, it cannot possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation). I include the link here because she discusses the differences in the type and severity of the procedure that a first century Jew would have undergone, and the procedure today.
I would not presume to judge the subjective morality of the decision of parents who choose circumcision for their son if, after diligent research and prayerful consideration, they truly believe that there is a significant health benefit. But the teaching of the Church is informative and not well-known. Due to the apparent shift in opinion in the medical field away from the position that there are health benefits to circumcision, and further due to the lack of a modern Church document specifically dealing with the subject, I thought a post might be helpful to readers.
If any medical professionals wish to give their understanding as to any health benefits or detriments of the procedure, feel free to post in the combox.