23 April 2008

A Circumspect Post

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

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.


cmziall said...

I found this post/subject pretty interesting. My brother used to be a nurse and he told me a story about an uncircumsized large man and it made my skin crawl. I found it interesting because I (we) do it and I think it's more of like the article said "we do it because our parents did it" and I really can't imagine "not" doing it. Let's hope God doesn't send me any more boys! :-o (laughing, of course) ;)

Anonymous said...

Jesus was circumcized, hence the Feast of the Circumcision. That's good enough for me.

Anonymous said...

Good post. I, too, was glad to see the Post article. Catholics too often tend to move with and too seldom against the culture on this and on any number of issues. These were the exact reasons why we (and a few other young families we know) chose not to circumcise our sons. Not only is the practice barbaric, but it assumes from the start that our bodies are somehow not as we ought to be. Sure, it takes courage to break traditions and to risk what friends and family might say, but so does living the Gospel--really living it--everyday. Thanks for raising the issue.

Anonymous said...

And I am the opposite of cmziall. I researched this thoroughly before my son was born and I saw no reason TO do it. I spent 9 months protecting my baby and I wasn't about to harm him. I figure it's his choice, not mine, to make. Also, if you watch just 1 video of how it's performed AND pray there isn't an "oops" or a horrible infection it may just change your mind. I do know people who have circ. their first boys but haven't the rest. My 2 cents.

thetimman said...

to the anon who cites Jesus' circumcision-- you may want to read the fisheaters article linked in the post. It addresses that position. Remember that circumcision was a requirement of the old covenant, so of course Christ would have been circumcised. The new covenant supercedes the old. As Peter said, baptism now saves you. The fisheaters article also covers the likelihood that the circumcision Jesus underwent was different, and less drastic, than that of today. I don't know if this is true, but it is an interesting and thought-provoking possibility.

In the end of course, we are bound by Church teaching. I am not knowledgeable enough on this issue to definitively say one can't do it, but it is clear that the Church frowns on it without some justifiable reason.

Latinmassgirl said...

To all of those who are worried about keeping their son's body in the original state that God made them – RELAX. I have three sons whom I chose not to "mutilate" and they are all fine, without any eventful happenings.

To me the scariest thing that I saw was an episode on I think the Discovery Health Channel or other such cable show, a couple of years ago that discussed a case of a boy who was circumcised in the 1960's whom the doctor accidentally cut off his you-know-what. The doctor told the parents to just raise him as a girl, and a psychologist oversaw his "care", as an "experiment." Of course it didn't work and when he was a teenager, he, raised as "she," killed himself.

Now, someone cutting unnecessarily on my newborn, wiggly baby boy, that is frightening!!!!

thetimman said...

I was wondering when Latinmassgirl would weigh in on this!

Anonymous said...

Good post (again) on a timely issue. I've seen this one in the news quite a bit lately, too. So, I agree 100% with the Catholic Church on this issue -- circumcision is not required for Catholics.

Circumcision is, as most Catholics know, a sign of the Old Covenant in the flesh -- a covenant in blood between God and His people. It is something that can be seen, something physical, something of finite, earthly purpose for a single nation. And like most things in the Old Testament, it was a foreshadowing of that which was to come -- a Covenant in blood became a Covenant in faith for God's people that now included all the peoples of the earth, a baptism that can't be seen; a baptism of faith, a baptism that is profoundly more infinite and eternal -- a mark on our very souls.

Medically speaking, it can only do more harm than good; as it is an entirely unnecessary surgery. One reason it may have been a good idea in the past is because many people in, say, the 1600's or the 1700's, could expect to bathe only once or twice in their entire lives; and therefore rashes and infections could be expected to appear anywhere there were enclosed areas of skin, such as on your penis or in your armpits. Life is a little more civilized in this day and age, so there is little argument left for this procedure.

Also: Parents might want to take special care to notify all hospital staff that comes in contact with their child that they do NOT want a circumcision; as in many hospitals they tend to do this by default to all babies. Many hospitals are only now coming to the realization that people may not elect to have this done to their baby boy.


TLC Tugger said...

Please note that the Council of Florence statement from the 1400s was affirmed by Pope Pius XII in 1952. The Holy Roman Church still "...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."

Stephanie said...

Thank you for this post. It warms my heart to see more and more Catholic opening their eyes about this barbaric procedure. It is clearly condemned by the Church. The only reason there is ANY debate is because we are American Catholics. No one other Western nation practices Male genital mutilation. My son is just the way God made him, and happy to be so!

FredR said...

Jesus was circumcised and when he grew up he was crucified for trying to replace the ritual sacrifice of infant circumcision with the ritual cleansing sacriment called baptism. If you allow yourselves to be circumcisised then his sacrifice will lose value and profit you nothing and becomes meaningless. You might as well give up Jesus and become Islamic where circumcision is forced on people, too.

Anonymous said...

I worked in home health care several years ago. My job was to help older men take baths. I noticed that uncircumcized men were often infected and had many more problems than circumcized men, even when special care was made to keep clean. Although most parents never see this aspect of the care for their children, the deicions they make will impact their children 80+ years after they are born. Although it is certainly true that there is no religious reason to circumcise (it does not aid in salvation), it makes good health sense.

Parvenu74 said...

Anonymous said: "Parents might want to take special care to notify all hospital staff that comes in contact with their child that they do NOT want a circumcision."

Just put it in your birth plan that circumcision or vaccination prior to the age of 14 days will be considered malpractice and dealt with accordingly. Hospitals do pay attention to things that are handed to them on paper -- especially if the letterhead is that of a medical malpractice attorney... :-)

FredR said...

Anonymous said "I noticed that uncircumcized men were often infected and had many more problems than circumcized men, even when special care was made to keep clean."

Anonymous failed to mention that uncircumcised elderly women were often infected and had many more problems than circumcized women, even when special care was made to keep clean."

I work with the elderly, too. Epidurmal break down is a normal aging process.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, this post is simply wrong in an important respect. Recently, public health authorities have stressed that circumcision is more important than ever. Data from Africa shows that is is highly effective in preventing HIV transmission by heterosexual men.

Jeremy said...

Of course, castration is even MORE effective than circumcision, so why don't we just have that done?

Unfortunately there isn't anything 100% effective...Oh wait, not sleeping around does that...must have slipped your mind...

rainphire said...

Having just followed a link to this blog, because of the mention of circumcision, I wanted to comment on the post made 9 may 2008. The study that found a decrease in HIV infection rates among circumcised men was *scientifically flawed*. I do not recall the exact details but I *believe* that it failed to take into consideration differing lifestyles (based on religious beliefs) among the circumcised and intact men in the study. Also, if I recall rightly, the primary researcher had a bias for circumcision that ultimately biased the study's findings.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend it for 3 reasons:

1) It keeps it cleaner, boys with “hoods” usually fail to clean underneath, and sweat allows bacteria to growth and foul smells to develop
2) Based on the World Health Organization, circumcised males have fewer propensities to sexual transmitted diseases, including HIV.
3) Most women consider it nice looking.

Jeremy said...

2) Based on the World Health Organization, circumcised males have fewer propensities to sexual transmitted diseases, including HIV.
3) Most women consider it nice looking."

Two birds with one stone:

Based on logic, a couple who save the marital embrace for marriage have ZERO "propensities to sexual transmitted diseases, including HIV."

Similarly, a women who has never seen others live and in person probably wouldn't have much of a preference. Furthermore, is "nicer looking" really much of an argument anyways?