Did you know?
Circumcision is not a religious requirement for Catholics. Additionally no medical association in the world recommends it, and most Catholics worldwide do not circumcise their children. The Catholic Church stands firm on this for two important reasons:
1) Acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Redeemer and the fulfillment of the Covenant
From a religious standpoint, continuing to circumcise is a denial of Christ's redemption. By coming into the world, dying on the cross and rising for us, He has fulfilled the Old Covenant and we are no longer bound to the old laws. This is why St. Paul spoke strongly against circumcision in the Bible.
2) Bodily Integrity and Human Rights
The Catholic Church has consistently rejected dualism, or the concept that our spirits are separate from and more valuable than our bodies. Jesus was God and man. Our bodies are made in the image and likeness of God, and at the final resurrection we will be raised with our glorified bodies. Therefore, to directly harm the body, such as with medically unnecessary surgery, is a direct violation of bodily integrity. To add to the severity of this issue, routine infant circumcision forces unnecessary surgery onto people who cannot protect themselves or fight back.
BAPTISM NOT CIRCUMCISION
The bruises that [Paul] the Apostle received in the long history of his passion are the witness of the presence of the Cross of Jesus in St Paul's body; they are his stigmata. Thus, one can say that it is not circumcision that saves: these stigmata are the consequence of his Baptism, the expression of his dying with Jesus, day after day, the sure sign of his being a new creature (cf. Gal 6: 15).
- Pope Benedict XVI, on the Square outside the Lower Basilica of St Francis, Assisi, June 17, 2007
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.
- Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, January 31, 2007
According to the General Council of Vienna: "Christians may not be enticed into Judaism; neither may they be circumcised for any reason." This was reinforced by the Council of Florence, in the document "Cantate Domino" (1441) signed by Pope Eugene IV:
The Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes, and teaches that the matter pertaining to the law of the Old Testament, of the Mosaic law...although they were suited to the divine worship at that time, ceased, and the sacraments of the New Testament began; and 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...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."
According to Catholic dogma, the teachings of General Councils belong to the Deposit of Faith, do not allow for dissent, and can never be revoked or modified, being protected from error by the Holy Ghost.
Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) decreed that:
...the amputation of any part of the human body is never legal, except when the entire body cannot be saved from destruction by any other method.
Do you think circumcision is just a snip of a flap of skin? Circumcision is the surgical procedure to remove the prepuce organ, what laypeople call the foreskin or clitoral hood. Learn more about what circumcision removes here.
This was reinforced by Pope Pius XII in 1952:
3. Religious precepts
(a) Catholic. From a moral point of view, circumcision is permissible if, in accordance with therapeutic principles, it prevents a disease that cannot be countered in any other way
Pius XII, Discorsi e messaggi radiodiffusi, t. XIV, Rome 1952, s. 328-329
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Item 2297: Respect for bodily integrity
... Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.
From the website of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate Roman Catholic Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, USA
ETHICAL AND RELIGIOUS DIRECTIVES
FOR CATHOLIC HEALTH CARE SERVICES
Publication No. 5-452 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
29. All persons served by Catholic health care have the right and duty to protect and preserve their bodily and functional integrity.16 The functional integrity of the person may be sacrificed to maintain the health or life of the person when no other morally permissible means is available.17
31. No one should be the subject of medical or genetic experimentation, even if it is therapeutic, unless the person or surrogate first has given free and informed consent. In instances of non-therapeutic experimentation, the surrogate can give this consent only if the experiment entails no significant risk to the person's well-being. Moreover, the greater the person's incompetency and vulnerability, the greater the reasons must be to perform any medical experimentation, especially non-therapeutic.
32. While every person is obliged to use ordinary means to preserve his or her health, no person should be obliged to submit to a health care procedure that the person has judged, with a free and informed conscience, not to provide a reasonable hope of benefit without imposing excessive risks and burdens on the patient or excessive expense to family or community.18
33. The well-being of the whole person must be taken into account in deciding about any therapeutic intervention or use of technology. For example, while the donation of a kidney represents loss of biological integrity, such a donation does not compromise functional integrity since human beings are capable of functioning with only one kidney.
17. Cf. directive 53.
18. Declaration on Euthanasia, Part IV; cf. also directives 56-57.
The Question Box
The Morality of Circumcision
by Father John Dietzen
- The Tablet, the official paper
of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn
30 October 2004, p 33
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 Vienna (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.
Jesus himself is reported to have mentioned circumcision only once:
Jesus answered and said to them, "I did one work, and you all marvel. "Moses therefore gave you circumcision (not that it is from Moses, but from the fathers), and you circumcise a man on the Sabbath. "If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath, so that the law of Moses should not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made a man completely well on the Sabbath?"
John 7 21-23
What is interesting is that he contrasts circumcision with healing, emphasising that circumcision is an injury, as well as an example of over-zealous law-keeping. (Some have taken the words of the King James Bible - "made a man every whit whole" - to mean that Jesus even undid the man's circumcision but this seems strained.)//
Circumcision was a big issue for the early church because it meant the difference between Christianity being just a sect of Judaism or a whole new religion and because adult Greeks especially were unwilling to undergo a painful operation to join the new sect.
And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And when there had been much dispute, Peter rose up and said to them: "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us, and made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they."
And after they had become silent, James answered, saying, "Men and Brethren, listen to me: I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, But that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.
They wrote this letter to the brethren who are of the Gentiles in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: "Greetings. Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying 'You must be circumcised and keep the law' - to whom we gave no such commandment it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: That you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and, from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell."
So when they were sent off, they came to Antioch; and when they had gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter. When they had read it, they rejoiced over its encouragement.
Acts 15:1... 7-11... 13...19-20,23-4,28-31
("...which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear" suggests that Peter and some of his audience had already abandoned the practice of circumcision._
For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision is counted as uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. What advantage then has the Jew, or what is the profit of circumcision? Much in every way! Chiefly because to them [the Jews] were committed the oracles of God.
Romans 2:25 -3:2
(The reason given refers to the first version of the question "What advantage then has the Jew?" far better than to the second "what is the profit of circumcision?" Circumcision is referred to only as a symbol of Judaism. Paul is convinced that the oracles of God will still be committed to Christians from now on, though they are not physically circumcised.)
Since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith, do we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.
(The use of "through faith," how the uncircumcised are justified, makes it clear that Paul believes Christians can establish the law without circumcising.)
"Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin." Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe, though they are uncircumcised, that righteousness might be imputed to them also. And the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also walk in the steps of the faith which our father Abraham had while still uncircumcised. For the promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.
Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters.
I Corinthians 7:18-19
Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.
And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justifed by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.
As many as desire to make a good showing in the flesh, these would compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not suffer persecution for the cross of Christ. For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.
In him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ. Buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it away, having nailed it to the cross.
Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.
Both the Hebrew and Greek ("Old" and "New") Testaments make various references to figurative circumcisions, of the heart or of the lips, where circumcision is a metaphor for purification. In each case, they implicitly acknowledge that physical circumcision does not purify. For example:
"Behold, the days are coming," says the LORD, "that I will punish all who are circumcised with the uncircumcised. Egypt, Judah, Edom, the people of Ammon, Moab and all who are in the farthest corners, who who dwell in the wilderness. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are unicircumcised in the heart.
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