This article deserves an introduction, or at least an explanation. In December of 2016, I authored “Circumcision: An Acceptable Practice?,” which was edition 283 of my fortnightly Ad Rem. Around that time, I also interviewed Dr. David Lang on the same subject for Reconquest (“The Moral Question of Circumcision”).
A recent comment on the Ad Rem I wrote brought to my attention an article in The Linacre Quarterly, “Infant Male Circumcision: A Catholic Theological and Bioethical Analysis,” by David Albert Jones, DPhil. That article took issue with Dr. Lang’s positions as articulated in his book on the subject. I contacted Dr. Lang about Dr. Jones’ article, who wrote back very promptly explaining that he had authored a response to it, which he submitted to The Linacre Quarterly, but the journal did not publish it, at least not yet. Dr. Lang also kindly forwarded me the article granting me permission to publish it on Catholicism.org, for which I am very grateful.
The article, or “essay,” as Dr. Lang calls it, is a scholarly response to another scholar’s objection to his work, and therefore it presupposes a certain degree of knowledge of the subject at hand. At any rate, it is not an introduction to the issue, for which the above referenced article, book, and interview are recommended. —Brother André Marie, M.I.C.M.
A Catholic Bioethical and Theological Counter-Analysis:
Reply to David Albert Jones on Male Infant Circumcision
By David P. Lang
THIS essay proposes a bioethical and theological counter-analysis to David Albert Jones’s Linacre article “Infant Male Circumcision: A Catholic Theological and Bioethical Analysis”. [Jones 2018] The author of that essay dismisses any ethically relevant distinction between the two stages of excision of the prepuce, whether on historical or physiological grounds. But these two equivocal versions of “circumcision” greatly differ in invasive severity in a manner to be explained below. Hence, this distinction lies at the crux of the ethical debate and cannot be lightly deflected. At stake are pertinent factors centering on the violation of the natural moral law, of which Catholic and other physicians (whether obstetricians, pediatricians, or urologists) should be more cognizant. Moreover, any defense of elective, non-therapeutic “circumcision” of whatever kind threatens religious ramifications for a Christian believer, whether a health-care provider or a parent. Both problems (first the ethical and then the religious) are addressed in this essay in reply to Jones’ critique. The theological rebuttal comes last, because the conclusion of Jones’s article unfairly attacks opponents of elective MIC (the acronym for “male infant circumcision”) as “enemies of religious liberty”. But at the outset we must confront some key historical data.
Many reputable authors contend that the radical second stage was not officially or routinely practiced until around 140-150 AD, when the rabbinic overseers of Jewish ethnic identity forbade terminating ritual circumcision at the initial token cut known as brit milah. Instead, they decreed the complete ablation of the foreskin via what is called periah (“opening”). Their motivation was to prevent Hellenizing Jewish men from engaging in the use of weights (the method of pondus judaeus) in an effort to reverse their circumcision. This restorative process would not have been possible for them unless they previously had substantial preputial remnants that could be stretched forward. [Glick 2005; Pollack 2009; Rubin 2003]i The germane historical context is depicted in the First Book of Maccabees 1:16, which reports: “They made prepuces for themselves” (preputia sibi fecerunt in the old Latin translation of the Septuagint). The Jewish Encyclopedia itself, in its entry “Circumcision”, unhesitatingly acknowledges the essential distinction between the customary Muslim practices consisting in gradations of milah (performed on boys a significant number of years after infancy) and the Judaic version featuring brit periah (performed on male babies so young that they can be practically subsumed under the category of neonates). These facts seem incontrovertible.
Jones maintains the possibility that some Jews had earlier (perhaps in Old Testament times) gone all the way to complete foreskin removal. But even if this were true, it doesn’t follow on theological or metaphysical grounds that such non-token excision was ever condoned by God. The ancient Jews, like much of fallen mankind during most eras, often engaged in freely chosen acts contrary to God’s express Will, Who nevertheless permitted their misdeeds. Now, the ritual commanded of Abraham by God in Genesis 17 was supposed to be (according to the traditional Catholic understanding enunciated by St. Thomas Aquinas) merely a temporary foreshadowing of the passion and death of the Messiah, who would eventually institute the Sacrament of Baptism unto the remission of Original Sin for both Jews and Gentiles.ii At any rate, it could not possibly have involved periah – simply on the historical grounds recorded in the scriptural text. For God commanded Abraham to carry out the procedure on every male in his (probably ample) household. The promptly obedient patriarch did as he was told that very day according to Genesis 17:22-27. Yet the radical operation of periah would have been much more time-consuming to accomplish. These facts again seem evident. But periah would undoubtedly also have induced a state of debilitation demanding at least several days of recovery, worse than the outcome for the more superficial cut of milah. In addition, with periah there would likely have been a greater susceptibility to sepsis and irreparable bodily damage due to the presumable lack of medical equipment to render this more invasive surgery comparatively innocuous. Granted that the text is silent on the latter point, providing no explicit indication of either a smooth recovery process or long-lasting injury and suffering. Nevertheless, it is safe to assume that God would not command the performance of a rite that was inherently fraught with physical danger, as periah could be, especially if we consider the fairly primitive methods that must have been employed at the beginning of this practice. (There is no intention here to denigrate the wisdom of ancient medical knowledge.) Therefore, the most reasonable conclusion to draw is that the Abrahamic (later Mosaic) covenantal rite entailed simply the token clipping (a literal “cutting around”) of the foreskin’s overhang taper (the akroposthion) known as milah, which is simple to execute. Equally important, it is certainly non-mutilating, since it leaves all organic functioning intact (unlike the complete posthectomy of periah, to be elaborated upon later).
For solidly conclusive evidence, however, we must revert to the afore-mentioned verse of 1 Maccabees as well as to the Jewish Encyclopedia article, along with (of course) the extensive research that has been carried out in recent times. These references together show that the official practice of periah was a rabbinic innovation of the post-OT era. It appears to be a later historical instance of what our Lord Jesus Christ had more than a century earlier accused the Pharisees and scribes of doing in general: namely, instituting “traditions of men” – mere human regulations that go beyond the genuine commandments of God and often “make void the word of God” (in other words, actually contradict the divine ordinances, for example in their law of “Corban”).iii St. Paul later warned against “giving heed to Jewish fables [Ioudaikois mythois in the Greek transliteration] and commandments of men perverting the truth [literal English translation from the Greek]”.iv Moreover, in the specific context of discussing the contentious matter of circumcision he makes a clear distinction between “cutting around” [peritomen] and “cutting away” [katatomen]. He denounces as “dogs” [kynas] and “evildoers” [kakous ergatas] only those who perform “concision” [katatomen] rather than “circumcision” [peritomen], which would necessarily be physically benign by contrast.v From these various sources, we learn that the self-proclaimed guardians of rabbinic tradition not only mandated that Jewish males receive a visible sign of the Abrahamic-Mosaic covenant according to the divine prescription of the covenant cut, but that they went much further to force surrender of every vestige of preputial tissue. They did so in order to preclude any possibility of a breach in demarcating a cherished ethnic singularity. They thereby validated our Lord’s prophetically righteous indignation in many times calling them “hypocrites”, more concerned with serving a social agenda than the kingdom of heaven.
Among all bioethical issues, this one seems so inextricably laden with a biblical burden that it appears initially imperative to anticipate and address some obvious rejoinders about what transpired in Old Testament times and how those events might relate to the current moral and theological debates.
First, no one is claiming that milah was devoid of pain. An objection has been raised, for example, over the incident recorded in Genesis 34, in which two sons of Jacob, while proposing a fraudulent conjugal bargain, deceived the male inhabitants of Shechem into accepting “circumcision”. Their actual motive was to set up the opportunity to exact revenge for the defilement of their sister Dinah by slaying the hapless men of the city when they were resting from soreness for days in the aftermath of the operation. Two responses are possible here. First, it does not follow that whatever cutting was done to them constituted periah, since milah (depending on how it was done, especially lacking anesthesia) could also have been sufficiently painful to require a period of recovery. After all, even trauma that doesn’t result from penetration of the skin attended by bleeding (such as a broken ankle or wrenched back) can demand lengthy recuperation that will render a patient relatively immobile in the interim. Secondly, even if it is conceded that periah was somehow inflicted on them, it surely doesn’t follow that this act was divinely mandated or approved in the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 17. There is simply no connection between the two chapters that would permit such a conclusion to be drawn. If anything, the context of Genesis 34 makes it obvious that, whatever was entailed in the “circumcision” of the Hivite men, these two sons committed heinous deeds in the sight of their father, who vehemently reprimanded them for their wanton mayhem, bringing only reproach to the family (v. 30). Hence, this incident is not at all pertinent to the discussion of MIC and its surgical versions.
Much more relevant is the famous episode in the book of Joshua (narrated in 5:2-8) when God did enjoin the esteemed and illustrious successor of Moses to have all the males circumcised once the Israelites had crossed the Jordan River into the Promised Land, because the rite had not been enacted during the forty years of wandering in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. The text recounts that Joshua made “flint knives” and that the males had to remain encamped “until they were healed”. This passage provides no convincing evidence of periah. Indeed, the use of such knives had apparently no deleterious effects, since everyone seems to have successfully recuperated. The fact that the knives must have been primitive by today’s surgical standards indicates that the degree of foreskin removal was minimal. If Joshua’s pseudo- surgeons (inexperienced from lack of opportunity to practice) had engaged in the extensive cutting and tearing characterizing periah by employing only “flint knives” for the entire male population, it strains or defies credulity that there would not have been numerous severe sequelae far beyond a needed period of recovery from a painful wound, including deaths from hemorrhaging (which have sometimes occurred in well-equipped modern hospital settings in so- called “botched circumcisions” of the non-milah kind). Nor does there seem to have been any hygienic or prophylactic reasons for God’s command to Joshua, because there is no indication in the scriptural text that forty years in the desert without the purported benefit of circumcision had any adverse physical repercussions for the boys and men who had been deprived of it for up to four decades of their lives, depending on their ages. But such reasons have been precisely the pretexts advanced ever since some Victorian physicians introduced periah to the Anglophone nations in the late nineteenth century. Therefore, the mass circumcision performed in the book of Joshua must have been a merely token ritual with purely religious significance applicable at the time according to God’s plan of salvation history. And so there is a fortiori no non- therapeutic necessity for it today when we have access to the hygienic resources of plenty of hot water and all kinds of soaps, with the fallback of medicinal creams in case of infection.
Likewise, the circumcision by Moses’ wife Zipporah of their son in Exodus 4:25 was accomplished quickly with just a sharp stone, an instrument that could not have fully ablated the foreskin in such a brief time (especially if the synechial membrane cementing prepuce to glans was still adherent). Moreover, it was wielded by someone who (we can surmise) would not have dared to risk complete amputation or fatal bleeding in a beloved child.
The worry of Dr. Jones seems to revolve around these (or similar) historical data, which he believes remain obscure and non-probative (for instance, the exact character of what was done to Jesus on the eighth day after His nativity). The above scriptural exegesis was meant solely to adduce argumentation for the opposite thesis that the evidence is not at all murky but rather fairly straight-forward about the nature of the procedure, at least according to the divine prescription aside from unapproved deviations. Nevertheless, in a larger sense (both philosophical and theological) it doesn’t really matter for resolving the ethical quandary. For even if, per impossibile, God had actually mandated periah, it doesn’t follow that it is still not objectively a mutilation that would be forbidden by the natural moral law when perpetrated by deliberate human choice without divine approbation in any subsequent epoch. Under the Old Covenant God commanded some acts that would be morally reprehensible if undertaken by merely human decision: for example, the intended sacrifice of Isaac by his own father (though halted at the last moment) or the pillaging and slaughtering of heathen tribes (including their innocent children) such as the Canaanitesvi and Amalekitesvii (not always obeyed by the Israelites who were sometimes punished for not executing the divine ordinance of religious cleansing or ethnic exterminationviii).
The point is that there is an equivocation or ambiguity in denominating an act “intrinsically evil”. One of two mutually exclusive alternatives must be specified: (1) whether the act is commanded by the authority of the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God, Who has sovereign dominion over all human life and for Whom nothing can be malum per se when disposing with His creatures ad extra; or (2) whether it is done on merely human initiative and thus can be malum in se for us. An act violating bodily integrity that would be objectively immoral if done by some men under their own license to other (innocent) human beings would be “intrinsically evil” in a relative context: i.e., lacking any proportional justification such as the principle of totality in the case of therapeutic surgery or else certain kinds of charitable organ donation. By contrast, such an act violating bodily integrity would not be “intrinsically evil” if considered absolutely: i.e., taking life or limb at the instigation of a special divine revelation. But the latter state of affairs happened only in the Old Testament and only extremely rarely, as in the case of the projected oblation of Isaac or the annihilation of certain perversely pagan peoples including their children. Hence, God could theoretically have mandated periah if He had willed, and it would then not have been “intrinsically wrong” for human beings to carry out this procedure under the aegis of such positive divine sanction, although there is no evidence whatsoever that He ever wanted it done or that He ever countenanced it except as an expression of His permissive Will. In fact, aside from some hypothetically temporary permission for it, it would be contrary to the metaphysical (teleological) principles ruling His created order in which all things have essences directed to ends meant to be actualized, in particular the human male prepuce with its normal functioning [Lang 2012, 121-122], despite Jones’s apparent demurral on this point. God would be contradicting His infinite wisdom to bestow from birth on every male and female mammal (whether human or brute) an organic structure serving as a protective barrier and required for smooth reproductive activity, but then command its complete ablation – with the additional twist that this stricture would apply solely to human males. Such a scenario is ontologically inconceivable. (Thus, an Ockhamist or Islamic theological voluntarism is not being espoused here.)
It is therefore more illuminating to judge the morality of human acts by whether they are objectively wrong for us to perform on our own authority. In this case they would be “intrinsically evil” because (in the sphere of finite or secondary causality) they subvert the order of justice regulating the inherent good due among human persons according to their essential nature, regardless of the laudable subjective motives of custodial agents or their mistaken historical perceptions of the extent of divine prescriptions.
The bottom line boils down to a simple syllogism. The major premise is the general precept: “All mutilation is contrary to the natural moral law (and thus forbidden by Catholic doctrine).” The minor premise, once it has been established as historically and scientifically factual, would be: “Modern elective child circumcision (periah) is indeed a mutilation.” The conclusion would then be inescapable: “Therefore, modern elective child circumcision (periah)
is contrary to the natural moral law (and thus forbidden by Catholic doctrine).” This verdict falls under Catholic teaching implicitly, even if the Church were never to have issued any explicit documents addressing the topic (although this is not the case, as we shall see in our concluding argument). [Lang 2011]
Hence, the critical juncture from the perspective of the natural moral law is the refutation or the establishment of the minor premise of this syllogism. Contrary to interlocutors on both sides of the contentious debate regarding non-therapeutic MIC, citing statistical studies is in many ways ethically irrelevant. Some surgical interventions (such as removing a non-vital organ or limb where a disease could potentially arise in the future) might have undeniable physically beneficial results (i.e., the possibility of pathology is by definition precluded), and yet still not be morally right – otherwise, we should all be secular pragmatists caught up in a consequentialist drive to eradicate illnesses by extirpating the sites or appendages that might someday harbor them. Thus, we need not invoke statistical percentages (often dubious or controversial, anyway) to argue for the minor premise of the foregoing syllogism. Nevertheless, an author might include a modicum of such discussion for the sake of a fleshed-out rhetorical presentation, while ideally concentrating primarily on the transparently verifiable immediate and long-term physiological sequelae of this elective surgery.
Indeed, the opening sentences of an abstract for a recent medical journal study apodictically assert: “The circumcision of males is emphatically linked to numerous sexual dysfunctions. Many of the purported benefits do not hold up to the scrutiny of extensive literature surveys. Involuntary circumcision, particularly when not medically warranted, is also associated with many psychological and emotional traumas.” [Purpura, Bondioli, Cunningham, et al. 2018] Of course, the authors go on to buttress their contention with weighty evidence. Earlier well-known published medical research had already vindicated such theses. [Gairdner 1949; Taylor and Lockwood 1996; Cold and Taylor 1999]
Therefore, in discussing the ethics of mutilation, the key principle to invoke is totality if and only if there are threats to the physical welfare of the individual that cannot be countered in any other way than the sacrifice of a part for the sake of the whole. Hypothetical speculations based on statistical generalizations and nebulous future scenarios do not qualify as legitimate rationales for pre-emptive attacks on healthy, normally functioning organic systems (in particular, what amounts in periah to essentially reductive genital surgery without medically indicated necessity). Otherwise, the default position should reside with the principle of integrity, because the infinite divine Wisdom governing the cosmic economy has endowed His human children with precious gifts that are not superfluous (or redundant), and which they consequently have the right to retain, absent any actual countervailing menace from their presence (in particular, the human male foreskin system).ix
Rather than juggling statistics about possible advantages to outweigh potential harms, the only convincing (and inexpensive) “research” one has to conduct is to ask virtually any intact adult male a single simple question: whether he would have preferred to be bereft of, say, his healthy working frenulum. The reply to this question (one expected by common sense in the vast majority of cases) should serve as a reasonable gauge for the moral advisability of shearing it off someone who was never extended the courtesy of being asked his opinion about its value to him.x Indeed, just this one solitary deprivation of a functionally useful tether, deliberately inflicted for no therapeutic reason without his knowing consent to some promised alleged benefit, would constitute an assault against the integrity of his masculine nature (i.e., an unjustifiable mutilation). And yet what is often done to male infants (at least in America for the past century) wreaks havoc far beyond frenectomy, as unconscionable as the latter is: namely, the devastation wrought by periah on all of the other tissues, sensitive nervous network, and blood vessels comprising the preputial sac. [Lang 2012, 102-107, 113] One might minimize the entire operation as “relatively minor surgery”, but the guaranteed loss of bodily integrity, along with the concomitant needless risks of iatrogenic injury, disfigurement, and even death (from infection or hemorrhage) [Lang 2017, 37], reduces any purportedly prophylactic (as opposed to curative) pretexts to an ethical nullity.
The neuralgic controversy over protection of religious liberty is thereby settled. Under any proposal to ban the “circumcision” (an equivocal term until specifically clarified) of minors, only periah would be proscribed under natural law reasoning. Parents could continue to have the token rite of milah performed, however difficult it may be to enforce the crucial distinction within such proposed legislation. The role of the State would be limited to ensuring that children are not subjected to maiming – as, in a just world, the State should resume its rightful prerogative and absolute duty of banning the murder of pre-born children via legalized abortion.
Dr. Jones commits factual errors while insinuating an unfair attendant moral condemnation of motives in the admonition at the end of his article: “In the light of the teaching of John Paul II, Catholics should understand the attempt to prevent Jews from circumcising their sons, not only as being contrary to natural justice but also as a direct attack on the first and irrevocable Covenant. Such attacks may be expected from the secular enemies of religious freedom but they are not compatible either with Catholic doctrine or with the natural law.”
This paragraph would become accurate if two of its statements were inverted. First, no informed Catholic (nor anyone else of note) is engaged tout court in “the attempt to prevent Jews from circumcising their sons”. To the contrary. The argument of educated Catholics who oppose so-called “circumcision” is much more nuanced, relying chiefly on the critical and patently egregious difference between milah and periah (however much Jones might attempt to undermine the distinction), countenancing the former while repudiating only the latter in ethical and legal terms – precisely on account of its incompatibility with the “natural justice” governing human behavior considered in itself. Fortunately, though, we don’t have to advocate or foment any sort of religious persecution whatsoever: Jews and Muslims could continue to exercise their freedom to perform the physiologically innocuous ceremony of milah even if the mutilation of periah were legislatively abolished. Most instantiations of milah still traumatize youth, however. [Boyle and Ramos 2019]xi
In passing, we might take the occasion to remark that the current emphasis on “sexual non-discrimination” would, if anything, urge the ranking of MGM on a legal par with FGM, once the definitions of both are clearly determined, perhaps along a spectrum of degrees of comparative invasiveness. It does smack of an unacceptable double-standard when feminists in the liberal Western nations protest and universally condemn any non-medical physical violation of a girl’s genitalia, even an intrusion as simple as a nick of the clitoral hood, but deny any moral equivalence with bloody surgery that destroys the natural integrity of a boy’s penis while incurring needless risks in the process.
Secondly, after our preceding ethical counter-analysis in response to Dr. Jones, we are now forced to enter the vexed terrain of theology and religious affiliation, where there is a different verdict from the moral and legal norms articulated above. The “irrevocable” Abrahamic Covenant indeed was never nullified, because traditional Catholic theology holds with St. Paul that the Church is the New Israel of Godxii. The Apostle to the Gentiles expends an enormous amount of effort in proving that her members are the legitimate spiritual descendants of Abraham justified by faith and grace.xiii But the Abrahamic covenant fulfilled in Christ must not be conflated with the works of the Mosaic Law (including mandatory milah circumcision), which became obsolete upon the passion and death of the Savior and His foundation of the Church.xiv
For example, St. Paul declares that “if you be circumcised [peritemnesthe in the Greek], Christ shall profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man circumcising himself, that he is a debtor to the whole law. You are made void of Christ, you who are justified in the law: you are fallen from grace.”xv There could hardly be a more strenuous rebuke of a self-avowed Christian opting to undergo this ritual. St. Paul does go on to say that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail”xvi, but in the context of this whole passage he is clearly referring to those who were in one or the other circumstance prior to the proclamation of the Gospel and their subsequent assent to it. Likewise, when he says elsewhere that “circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing,”xvii he had just explained in the previous verse that no man in either condition should seek to change his anatomical configuration: in particular an intact man ought not to be circumcised.xviii St. Paul is certainly not giving carte blanche in either of these texts for a personal choice in the matter once a man has accepted the yoke of Christ; for it would then exhibit a conflicted mind trying to serve two masters in taking up the yoke of Moses as though it were a religiously neutral embellishment. In fact, Paul utters a malediction reprobating anyone who would disturb the soul (and body, we might add) of a Christian disciple by conveying a contrary message.xix The Apostle is likewise not advising MIC (of whatever version).
Unfortunately, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, there has been a tendency on the part of the Church hierarchy (including Pope John Paul II) and Catholic theologians (evinced by Jones himself) to display excessive deference toward Jewish views and customs. In the ecclesiology of past ages this mindset would have been correctly categorized as “Judaizing”, a mentality that the early Church (especially in the person of the converted Paul) found it continually necessary to combat – even to the point of confronting Pope St. Peter himself, xx who eventually appreciated the novel fulfillment of the Old Law in the New under Christ Jesus, including the abrogation of its former ritual precepts.xxi
Much worse is true, though, on the level of unjust accusations in some of our contemporary discourse. For if they were walking the earth today, St. John the Baptist, St. Paul, and the Lord Jesus Himself (all of them having exclusively Jewish ancestry) would undoubtedly be branded as “anti-Semites” (however strange that may sound) on account of their extraordinarily harsh words of criticism directed against those who claimed to be heirs of Abraham merely because they followed the material prescriptions of their interpretation of the Mosaic Law.xxii In other words, an elite or exalted spiritual status does not automatically follow in the train of either claimed ethnic descent or obedient external observances.
This confusing situation did not prevail in the late Medieval Church, however. During the Council of Florence (1438-1445), Pope Eugene IV signed the bull Cantate Domino (1441-1442), which, in the Pauline spirit, unambiguously delineated the superiority of the New Covenant relative to the Old Law:
It [the Roman Church] firmly believes, professes, and teaches that the matters pertaining to the law of the Old Testament, of the Mosaic law, which are divided into ceremonies, sacred rites, sacrifices, and sacraments, because they were established to signify something in the future, although they were suited to the divine worship at that time, after our Lord’s coming had been signified by them, ceased, and the sacraments of the New Testament began; and that whoever, even after the passion, placed hope in these matters of the law and submitted himself to them as necessary for salvation, as if faith in Christ could not save without them, sinned mortally. Yet it does not deny that after the passion of Christ up to the promulgation of the Gospel they could have been observed until they were believed to be in no way necessary for salvation; but after the promulgation of the Gospel it asserts that they cannot be observed without the loss of eternal salvation. All, therefore, who after that time observe circumcision and the Sabbath and the other requirements of the law, it declares alien to the Christian faith and not in the least fit to participate in eternal salvation, unless some day they recover from these errors. Therefore, it commands all who glory in the name of Christian, at whatever time, before or after baptism, to cease entirely from circumcision, since, whether or not one places hope in it, it cannot be observed at all without the loss of eternal salvation. [Denziger 712]
This Magisterial affirmation rings with the authoritative voice of the Catholic Church. It can neither be gainsaid nor spurned as outdated. In fact, the teaching of Florence has been implicitly endorsed by the papal magisterium in our own day. Pope Benedict XVI summarized the scriptural evidence:
Together with Paul, he [St. Barnabas] then went to the so-called Council of Jerusalem where after a profound examination of the question, the Apostles with the Elders decided to discontinue the practice of circumcision so that it was no longer a feature of the Christian identity (cf. Acts 15: 1-35). It was only in this way that, in the end, they officially made possible the Church of the Gentiles, a Church without circumcision.xxiii
In the sweeping injunction of Cantate Domino rejecting elective circumcision in general (a fortiori the mutilation of periah), no exceptions are made for Christian parents or physicians who feel pressured by quasi-compulsory social values influencing their mindset in the realms of aesthetics, hygienics, or prophylaxis. Since the role of the virtue of prudence is to guide deliberation in determining the best ways to realize the moral good, prudential judgment would dictate avoiding wrong actions, in particular not tacitly subscribing to a utilitarian maxim under which the end justifies the means.xxiv The parental principle of “deciding in the best interests of their son” can’t be invoked as a cloak for yielding to routine cultural surgery when this has been shown to be inherently detrimental. Provided there is no urgent medical necessity, the prudent course would be to wait until the child is old enough to make an informed choice of his own, because he is the one who has to live with the consequences of whatever decision is made.
There is simply no legitimate moral defense of non-therapeutic circumcision on the part of a Christian physician or a Christian parent. Any attempt at such an apologetic betrays a biased rationalization caught in a dilemma. If the surgery is periah, it is an injurious mutilation for anyone to inflict on a minor, no matter what their religion – a fortiori for a Christian who swears allegiance to the New Testament, particularly a Catholic who stands in the Thomist tradition of natural moral law reasoning. If the procedure is merely milah (which was once licit for the people of God, as Cantate Domino declares), then it nevertheless constitutes an objective offense against the virtue of Christian Faith. For, read according to the hermeneutic of continuity, Nostra Aetate and Vatican II cannot possibly contradict the Church’s profession of Faith enunciated at the Council of Florence. At stake in this debate is not only safeguarding the integrity of normal healthy male anatomy, but also the very credibility of the consistent witness of the Catholic Church to the Truth of Divine Revelation transmitted through Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
i Glick, at 46-47, locates textual evidence for the novel rabbinical mandate of periah in the Mishnah, under the order Moed (“Festivals”) in the tractate Shabbat (“Sabbath”) in Chapter 19 (Shab. 19.2).
ii Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 102, a. 5, ad 1; III, q. 37, a. 1, ad 1-3.
iii See Mark 7:1-13.
iv Titus 1:14
v Philippians 3:2
vi See Deuteronomy 20:16-18.
vii See 1 Samuel 15:2-3.
viii As an example, see 1 Samuel 15:8-10.
ix This line of natural law thinking, grounded in the metaphysics of philosophical anthropology, applies equally well to transgender re-assignment surgery. It is an objective duty of physicians to refrain from engaging in bodily mutilation of a biologically normal person with the intention of alleviating his or her subjective mental state of identity dysphoria.
x Lest this position be caricatured, the thesis is not being sustained that incompetent minors should make their own medical decisions. All that follows is that, in situations of contemplated elective surgery, as has usually been the scenario for routine MIC in the USA for the past century, the irrevocable decision should be postponed to a later time when the young man can make an informed choice, based on his own self-determined needs, concerning whether his condition is one of sufficient discomfort that he deems therapeutic intervention to be warranted, undoubtedly deploying the most conservatively curative approach. After all, it is his bodily accoutrement to use as a wise steward of a divinely accorded endowment – not his parents’.
xi Even though the operations are finished quickly, nevertheless Filipino boys who are subjected to traditional Tuli by the albulayo method (a mere dorsal slit without tissue excision) and Turkish boys who are treated with Sunnet festivities designed to distract them from a procedure less invasive than periah, still experience physical agony and psychological distress – their cultures insisting on this irrational rite of passage, though, whether to prove their manhood or as a symbol of their “cleanliness” (to avoid the insult of “supot” in the case of the Philippines).
xii See Galatians 6:11-16, esp. 16; cf. Hebrews 8:6-13.
xiii See Romans 2:25-29; 3:27-31; 4:9-14; 9-11; Galatians 3:1-14, 28-29; 5:1-12.
xiv See Hebrews 8:6-13; cf. Titus 1:13-14.
xv Galatians 5:2-4 [D-R]
xvi Galatians 5:6
xvii 1 Corinthians 7:19
xviii See 1 Corinthians 7:18.
xix Galatians 5:12; cf. Philippians 3:2-3, where St. Paul explicitly mentions a contrasting mutilation (“katatomen” or “cutting away” versus “peritomen” or “cutting around”, which is the true and original meaning of “circumcision”). Paul’s decision to have Timothy undergo circumcision, recounted in Acts 16:3, might seem inconsistent with his otherwise unconditional remonstrations against it, but it seems to have taken place purely out of human respect rather than as an act of religious devotion. At any rate, a token cut would have sufficed for the purpose, and indeed the Greek root word used is peritomen rather than katatomen. Obviously Timothy consented, so this incident has no bearing on MIC.
xx See Galatians 2:11-16.
xxi See Acts 15:1-21.
xxii See the scathing passages of Matthew 3:7-9; 15:1-14; 23:13-38; John 8:39-47; 1 Thessalonians 2:15.
xxiii General Wednesday Audience, January 31, 2007
xxiv Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 57, a. 5, c.
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