Circumcision: An Acceptable Practice?

The first of January is the Octave Day of Christmas. In the traditional Roman rite, it is the Feast of the Circumcision of Our Lord. Among other gems, this feast gives us the sublimely beautiful Benedictus antiphon, Mirabile mysterium, which has been wonderfully set to music and commented upon by great liturgical writers like Blessed Columba Marmion. The feast has also long had a Marian character to it, which fact gives some pretext to the new rite’s Solemnity of the Mother of God on that day.

The feast of the Circumcision shows us Mary and Joseph’s humble fidelity to the covenant made between God and Abraham, with its peculiar sign that “would be in your flesh for a perpetual covenant” (Gen. 17:13). In this rite, we see a sort of anticipation of the Passion, for Our Lord’s Precious Blood was shed for the first time on that day. The Octave of the Nativity also marks the occasion when the Holy Infant received the name “Jesus,” which means Savior, and the Church stretches this particular mystery out another day, giving us the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. The connection between the Precious Blood and our salvation are thus made quite clear.

Surely, with such a Biblical pedigree, the ceremony of circumcision is a good thing and something that ought to be practiced by Christians, no?

No! The Apostle tells us “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision: but faith that worketh by charity” (Gal. 5:6). And: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature” (Gal. 6:15). Lastly: “Is any man called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing: but the observance of the commandments of God” (I Cor. 7:18-19).

In case the abrogation of this covenant was not obvious enough from Holy Scripture, the Church has multiple times reasserted, and very vigorously, that the religious ritual of circumcision is forbidden. It is one of those observances of the Old Law which is “both dead and deadly” according to the Church, which declared in the Council of Florence that,

All, therefore, who after that time [that is “after the promulgation of the Gospel”] observe circumcision and the Sabbath and the other requirements of the [Mosaic] law, it [The Catholic Church] declares alien to the Christian faith and not in the least fit to participate in eternal salvation, unless someday they recover from these errors.” (Denz. 712)

Religious ritual circumcision is clearly off limits for Christians. But what about the modern medical practice? That’s good, right? It’s healthy, hygienic, aesthetic, and all those other wonderful things that many in the medical profession assure us it is, right?

Again, no.

What is done in modern American hospitals goes back to a Victorian obsession with physical hygiene and (believe it or not) a moral crusade to prevent what is delicately called “the solitary sin.” This is quite documented, and not just on Wikipedia. Circumcision, of course, does not help that moral disorder, the correction of which is reserved solely to the practice of virtue. Most of the Anglosphere stopped (or drastically curtailed) the practice of elective medical infant circumcision, but not the United States! We kept right on with it, due to a number of strange reasons, some cultural, and one of which is wickedly capitalist, for the American medical profession collects enormous sums from the sale of foreskins for medical research, skin grafts, and as ingredients in cosmetics (no, this is notfakenews!).

What is done in American hospitals is not what was done to Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob. Aside from its not having the same spiritual significance, it is not the same physical operation. In the modern practice, much more perfectly healthy tissue is amputated. The Old Testament practice, called in Hebrew brit milah, accomplished the removal of a small tip of the prepuce, leaving the glans covered. But the procedure for ritual circumcision was vastly altered by the rabbis around 140 A.D. into a much more intrusive procedure which amputates the entire prepuce, with its complex network of skin folds that cover the glans, as well as thousands of nerve endings, sebaceous glands, blood vessels, and even muscle tissue — all of which is part of the bodily integrity of that organ as God created it. This procedure, called in Hebrew brit periah, is much more painful, and is not what was mandated by God in the covenant with Abraham. (This article at Fisheaters documents the difference between brit milah and brit periah from the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.)

The reasons the rabbis made this change have been documented, but are a bit too indelicate for me to go into here. A clinically modest black and white series of illustrations will allow the reader a rapid glance at the considerable difference between the two practices.

The alleged health benefits that accrue to the victim of this barbarity have been debunked. But even if sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS were actually statistically lowered by infant circumcision, there are other ways of preventing those diseases — most notably living a virtuous life. We need not mutilate every boy because he might become a lecher one day and expose himself to those diseases. As for cancer, there are more chances that other organs will become cancerous (female breasts and the male prostate), and we don’t go mutilating them in newborns to prevent disease from happening decades later. If the excuse of disease prevention were consistently applied across the human anatomy, we would become a society of cripples with (potentially) fewer diseases.

There are Catholic moralists, like Father John J. Dietzen, Dr. David Lang, and (in the 1950’s) Father Edwin F. Healy, S.J., who teach that elective male infant circumcision not only violates the proper application of the time-honored principle of totality, but even fits the ethical definition of mutilation, which is gravely sinful. Indeed, if what we are talking about is a procedure that removes healthy tissue without any therapeutic reason at all, with only questionable (at best) or spurious prophylactic justifications, and that has serious risks of its own — including complications like hemorrhage, infection, ulceration, partial or total disfigurement, and even death — then there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that Catholic moral principles would oppose it.

Information on the issue abounds. Besides Catholics against Circumcision, whom I contacted while doing my own research, there are organizations like Doctors Opposing Circumcision, Mothers against Circumcision, and the National Organization of Circumcision Information Resource Centers. There are also books on the subject like Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America by Leonard B. Glick, What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Circumcision by Paul M. Fleiss and Frederick Hodges, and Circumcision, The Hidden Trauma by Ronald Goldman.

Dr. David Lang, who teaches systematic Thomistic philosophy at Our Lady of Grace Seminary in Boston, has published scholarly articles on the subject. He will discuss this issue with me on the next Reconquest.

  • M.

    Br. André Marie, this information would have been most helpful to me years ago. I’m keeping your post, though, in case there are GRANDsons in my future. God bless you for tackling this topic, which can make even the most otherwise robust folks become timid.

  • JMJT

    Circumcision can be done on adult sons and grandsons if they choose , so it is not essential to make this decision for infants,especially if it has no religious significance and no immediate medical indication.