Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Morality of Circumcision According to the Catholic Church

Answer by Father John Dietzen, M.A., S.T.L.


Question:

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 [of male genital mutilation] today. Why not? No medical or health association in the world recommends circumcision. (Ohio)


Answer:

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 nearly always has religious or social significance, signifying full membership in the group and establishing one's social position in the society.

The first command to the Jews, for example, was that every male child shed blood by "muwl" or "namal," 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 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 Christ 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 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 as you note, no 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 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 serves to protect the glans (head) of the penis during infancy and serves an important 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 medical or remedial reason renders it ethical.

Catholic and Christian parents created this tshirt - available at Made By Momma

For more on circumcision and the Catholic Church, see this site.

For more on circumcision and Christianity, see resources on this page.

For more on circumcision and Judaism, see resources on this page.


Father John James Dietzen, M.A., S.T.L., who is now retired from parish pastoral duties, has written a column for more than thirty years that is syndicated, distributed by the Catholic News Service, and carried in numerous Catholic publications across America.

Father Dietzen's background in the Catholic press, parish work, and in family life programs in and outside of his diocese qualify him for his role as "pastor in print." A native of Danville, Illinois, he studied at St. Bede College, Peru, Illinois, and at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois, before his ordination to the priesthood for the Diocese of Peoria in June, 1954. He holds a Master of Arts degree in English, and Licentiate degree in Sacred Theology.

Father Dietzen's work as a priest includes 16 years as associate editor of The Catholic Post, weekly newspaper of the Peoria diocese, and service to the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada as secretary and member of the board of directors. In the same period, he was responsible for the Family Life programs in his diocese, and gave pre-marriage, marriage and family life education programs in many cities. He also conducted seminars on marriage for the armed forces in Alaska, Japan and the Philippine Islands, and gave retreats to high school students, men and women and married couples in many parts of the country.

In 1973, Father Dietzen elected to re-enter parish work full time. He served as pastor of St. Mark's Parish in Peoria for nine years, and in January, 1983, accepted a position as pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Bloomington, Illinois, from which he has now retired. He has a background in radio broadcasting, and has been a popular radio guest on topic shows in Central Illinois, often appearing with clergy of other denominations in debates on timely subjects.

Father Dietzen began writing "The Question Box" column for The Catholic Post in 1975; it proved popular and was soon accepted by National Catholic News Service for nationwide publication.

7 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post!!! I have written about it myself in reference the the Catechism's statement regarding amputations done on non-consenting persons. I do wish that there was a more clear stance on its current practice, but the text of the Catechism makes it so clear to me. Wish it made it that clear for all Catholics. And I SOOOO want to get that "Baptism, not cicumcision" shirt if I ever have a son!!!

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  2. This is great!! I agree with Erin that we do need a VERY CLEAR and VERY OUTSPOKEN stance in the Catholic Church specifically mentioning circumcision. But when you look at all that Catholicism teaches (as this Father points out) it is already there. We just have to be willing to open our eyes.

    I don't have a son (yet) but I already have this shirt and so does my husband. It comes in great colors for adults, and I figure it is a statement in general for Catholics (and Christians) anywhere. You don't have to have a male child to stand up for babies everywhere and help to inform friends and family around you.

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  3. The priest's summary is excellent, and an extraordinary contrast to the support the Catholic Church gives to circumcision in the Philippines.

    I have a quibble with the T-shirt, that it may be read metaphorically, especially by Jews (and Muslims) as "Christianity, not Judaism".

    How about "Because we're Christian - Baptism, not circumcision"

    (I didn't want to use the expression "Chrisian baby" because babies don't have any religion.)

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  4. Thank you for sharing this! I am deeply saddened when I meet parents in my Catholic community who not only circumcised their sons, but remain pro-circumcision. The very act of intentionally destroying a part of the body is itself a grave offense in natural law and against our understanding of the Theology of the Body.

    That Americans routinely do this to innocent, helpless newborns simply adds offense to it.

    Nothing surprises me more than meeting a Catholic who is adamantly against aborting pre-born humans, but at the same time supports circumcision. The understanding that a person deserves a right to bodily integrity should not change based on cultural practice and gender.

    Although the mention that Christians might be "enticed" into Judiasm sounds odd, I have seen with my own eyes that circumcision can take on more than an American practice when it involves religion. I know some people who have moved far from the teachings of Jesus in their zeal to practice more and more aspects of the Old Testament.

    ~guggie

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  5. I don't know what to say except...yeah, what he said! Actually, I hadn't thought a lot about circumcision in ethical terms. We're Catholic but I think this certainly applies to anyone with a good ethical background. I think it sounds outlandish at first but it's logically spot-on.

    I just posted a link to this article on the Catholicism community on Livejournal and I'm curious what people will say.

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  6. This Protestant agrees with the Catholic teaching!

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  7. So my 16 year old son just brought up this point. He said " After a discussion today at school, I am about 80% sure that circumcision is a mortal sin". I thought to myself, no way. Surely, if circumcision was morally wrong I would have heard about it long before now. Many articles seem to lean towards the right of the parents to make that decision. We had both of our sons circumcised because my husband was, and both our fathers were. I remember hearing people say that usually parents choose according to if they or their fathers were or were not circumcised. It is still somewhat confusing to me why this issue is not clearly addressed. In my mind, after doing 15 minutes of internet searching I would tend to lean towards it being wrong because it is in fact unnecessary. With that being said, I feel no remorse of sin for having my sons circumcised as I did not have knowledge of this information when my husband and I made those decisions. I am however, going to bring this up with a very great priest friend who holds nothing back when it comes to what the church teaches. The only time in my life that I ever asked for dispensation, he told me he does not grant dispensation for ANY reason. Wow, that was a life changer for me. I am always learning how to deepen my faith. That is the beauty of growing closer in union with God's will.

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