[the following article was published in the Catholic periodical SOCIAL JUSTICE REVIEW, Vol.102, No. 3-4, March-April, 2011; a lengthier article applying Catholic moral principles to modern elective infant circumcision is being published in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, Spring 2012]
Implicit Catholic Teaching against Non-Therapeutic Child Circumcision
Parental rights over their children are not absolute, contrary to some current popular thinking. For example, the natural moral law restricts the way in which offspring are generated – artificial reproductive technology being prohibited as a violation of the dignity of human persons. A more obvious precept (though also one contested in secular society) forbids killing babies in the womb (through abortion) or after birth (infanticide). Although the Church designates parents the primary educators of their offspring, charged with the task of inculcating moral values in them, some parental choices are clearly off limits, such as teaching them to earn their livelihood by theft.
The Catholic Church needn’t issue a list spelling out all the possible ways in which parents can err in raising their children. Undoubtedly most (or all) of these errors are subsumed under more general principles. For example, maiming children as a punishment for disobedience or for some idiosyncratic cultural reason would come under the general precept forbidding mutilation, defined as the direct (or deliberate) infliction of organic injury on a healthy bodily part causing a foreseeable loss (whether actually or potentially permanent) of normal physical functioning. Trimming long finger (or toe) nails or head hair wouldn’t constitute mutilation, since no organic injury with loss of normal function results from the removal of excess nails and hair, which consist of essentially dead (keratinized) tissue and which will grow back anyway. On the other hand, it would be mutilation to uproot hair follicles or tear off nails. To commit either of these deeds would disrupt the body’s natural state of well-being and cause disfigurement: the former rendering the child irreversibly bald (with all that entails, including possible emotional humiliation) and the latter exposing the child’s delicate mucous membranes to loss of protection.
The Magisterium condemns all kinds of human mutilation, without necessarily specifying the variety of forms it can take. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: “Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asserts:
All persons served by Catholic health care have the right and duty to protect and preserve their bodily and functional integrity. 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.
This so-called “Principle of Totality” was articulated centuries ago by Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58), who wrote 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.” At the time, he was applying this moral doctrine to castration, which some parents had chosen for their prepubescent sons because they mistakenly believed that the preservation of the boys’ soprano voices was in the best interests of everyone in the family (perhaps for monetary reasons). Pope Pius XI repeated this principle in one of his major encyclicals:
Christian doctrine establishes, and the light of human reason makes it most clear, that private individuals have no other power over the members of their own bodies than that which pertains to their natural ends: and they are not free to destroy or mutilate their members, or in any other way render themselves unfit for their natural functions, except when no other provision can be made for the good of the whole body.
Another point of application, which the Church needn’t explicitly cite because it already falls under a broader heading, is the cutting and removal of the foreskin (or prepuce) that covers both the female glans clitoris and the male glans penis. Female genital cutting of this strictly limited kind (as well as the more brutal forms of infibulation, clitoridectomy, or vulvectomy), though widely practiced in some countries (especially Egypt) in order to diminish or eliminate feminine sexual sensitivity, certainly comes under the blanket condemnation of mutilation – whether or not the Church ever issues any particular directives or definitive pronouncements on it. Unless some pathological condition affects a girl’s outer reproductive zone, the elective or non-therapeutic excision of her naturally protective clitoral hood would be a senseless violation of the bodily integrity and healthy functioning with which the Creator endowed her.
Likewise for male circumcision, defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics as “amputation of the foreskin” (or posthectomy). But how could non-therapeutic circumcision be forbidden by the natural moral law? Didn’t God command routine circumcision for all males in the Old Testament, even for infants who could not consent? So how could such an operation be intrinsically unethical? The answer, according to many researchers, is that the Abrahamic-Mosaic circumcision rite mandated in Genesis 17 is not the same procedure as the modern form. There is a big equivocation on the term “circumcision.” The Old Covenant rite, though painful, involved only what is called brit milah: a token cut (prophetically symbolic of the blood to be shed by the promised Redeemer and a foreshadowing of Baptism) that clipped off merely the overhang flap or tapered neck (akroposthion) of the prepuce. The Hebrew words used for Old Testament circumcision were namal, which means clipping or snipping, and muwl, which means curtailing or blunting. Although the Hebrew language contains terms for a cutting off tantamount to entire removal, such words are not employed in this scriptural context. Now this curtailing, though visibly detectable, left sufficient skin to cover the glans, thus maintaining normal male physical function.
Around the middle of the second century A.D., however, the rabbis instituted a much more drastic version. These guardians of Judaic culture aimed to prevent Jewish men from tacitly repudiating their religious identity by appearing uncircumcised in Greek gymnasia – athletic facilities demanding precise standards of modesty. The situation is described in 1 Maccabees 1:16 (D-R), which reports: “They made themselves prepuces” (preputia sibi fecerunt in the old Latin translation of the Septuagint). Since these Hellenizing Jews would simply stretch their substantial preputial remnant forward, the rabbis decreed that henceforth all circumcisions must completely denude the glans, leaving no loose skin behind. This total uncovering is called brit periah ( “opening”), accomplished by cutting, tearing, and ripping away the whole preputial sheath. The Jewish Encyclopedia, in its article on “Circumcision”, makes clear that the Muslim practice (essentially milah) differs from the Judaic radical version (periah). The latter is the brand of surgery performed in modern times with the use of various surgical instruments (probes, forceps, clamps, scalpels). Without precedent in Christendom, it was adopted in the West by the medical establishment of several English-speaking nations in the nineteenth century, but recently in vogue only in the USA, which for a century has had a high rate of (non-therapeutic) routine male infant circumcision (RMIC). The operation (with varying degrees of severity) is practically universal in the Middle East, in the Philippines and in South Korea, but, except among the Jews, it is usually not performed on babies, the preference everywhere else being to wait until the youth is at least a few years old.
Although the ancient biblical form of milah doesn’t constitute a mutilation according to strict definition, the later form of periah certainly does. The prepuce is an integral part of the masculine reproductive system bestowed by the Creator. In eradicating it, periah destroys an extensive amount of healthy tissue (a large percentage of what would have been the normal adult male epithelium, muscles, blood vessels, and an entire network of nerves with thousands of free nerve endings), hence obliterating all attendant organic functioning. Dr. Christopher R. Fletcher (of Doctors Opposing Circumcision) attests to this devastation when he writes: “Circumcision is not simply a little snip, but a major and brutal surgery on the most sensitive part of a male’s anatomy, with lifetime consequences for all cut boys. Erectile dysfunction, increased infections in boys, such as multi-antibiotic resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), lack of sensitivity, etc. I prescribe many times more Viagra, Cialis, etc. for circumcised guys than normal men.” This subtractive operation externalizes the glans, which is naturally designed to be a soft, moist internal organ, in the process rendering it tough, dry, and desensitized (after years of chafing). In married life a man is robbed of a gliding, cushioning, and lubricating mechanism for smooth and gentle (non-abrasive) intercourse. Surely when God mandated the original rite of Old Covenant circumcision (brit milah), He didn’t intend the institution and perpetuation of a total destruction of what He in His infinite Wisdom ordained for the intact functioning of His human sons. Such a conflict between the Divine positive law and the natural moral law would involve a metaphysical contradiction.
Speaking directly to the ethics of modern circumcision, Fr. John Dietzen explains in a column published in the official newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn:
“[W]hile 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…. It is an amputation and mutilation, and, to my knowledge, … 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.”
The reasoning behind Fr. Dietzen’s conclusion is simple (but not simplistic, on account of the careful distinction that must be made in formulating the minor premise of a 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 is historically factual: “Modern elective child circumcision (periah) is a mutilation.” The conclusion is inescapable: “Therefore, modern elective child circumcision (periah) is contrary to the natural moral law (and thus forbidden by Catholic doctrine).”
Many Americans, who have innocently (certainly with invincible ignorance) viewed it as a harmless and morally neutral option, might be stunned to hear this verdict about the objective immorality of modern elective child circumcision. But their astonishment arises from seeing it through a provincial lens: the entrenchment of RMIC in US society ever since some famous British and American physicians of the Victorian period conducted a crusade to introduce it (virtually unheard of in Western Christendom until the mid-nineteenth century) for supposedly prophylactic reasons. These well-meaning but misguided medical doctors sought to prevent two kinds of disorder, which for them were intimately connected: physical disease and moral turpitude. Since surgery was almost the only weapon in their arsenal during an era devoid of effective drugs, they decided to inaugurate a mass campaign of excising the “filthy and malodorous cesspool” of the preputial cavity that could harbor the seeds of physical decomposition. Since they were mostly Protestants (along with some high-profile Jews) lacking the spiritual healing of the Sacraments, their pragmatic approach to inhibiting moral vice from taking root was to extirpate the mobile sheath they deemed the source of “irritation” (i.e., stimulation). Aware of the foreskin’s pleasure-enhancing attributes, they knew what they were doing when they espoused surgery as the surest way to blunt male erotic excitation. After a short period (during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century) of experimentation with solely punitive circumcision of boys caught materially transgressing the sixth commandment, the American medical profession (assuming a pseudo-divine jurisdiction) gradually settled into the prevalent routine of prophylactic male neonatal circumcision, whose rate peaked at about 85% around 1980 and apparently stabilized (with annual variations) somewhere between 50% and 60% after 1990. Thus, RMIC arose in America as an ostensibly “noble” application of the pernicious ethical dictum: the end justifies the means.
Though performed in scattered places throughout human history, elective circumcision has generally been regarded with loathing and revulsion. Even the OT Israelites found it an unpleasant task to carry out their non-invasive token ritual, as St. Peter indicates in Acts 15:10. And still today most of the world (Europe, Russia, Latin America, and the Far East with the exception of the Philippines and South Korea) views it as barbaric.
The Catholic Church has reprobated the practice of circumcision (done for religious motives) from her very beginnings, as recounted in the Acts of the Apostles. In a General Audience, 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.”
The letters of St. Paul, in particular Galatians 2:3-5; 5:1-12; 6:12-15 (cf. Acts 21:21), are replete with criticisms of those who would impose the burden of Old Covenant circumcision (milah) on members of the New Israel of God, the Church. Although he was writing well before the introduction of the severely reductive surgery of periah, in Philippians 3:2-3 he could be uttering a prophetic warning about its coming, since he uses peritomai (“cutting around”) to refer to traditional circumcision but by contrast katatomai (“cutting away” or “cutting off”) in the pejorative sense of an injurious excision: “Beware the dogs, beware the evil-doers, beware the mutilation [katatomen], for we are the circumcision [peritomai].” Of course, henceforth this new “circumcision” would be of the heart, bearing only spiritual significance (cf. Romans 2:29; 4:9-12). Evidently, then, the token physical circumcision of St. Timothy in Acts 16:3 was a singular exception for St. Paul, to which St. Timothy obviously consented, making it (merely an act of milah) completely unlike the pre-emptive, non-therapeutic radical surgery (periah) done on a non-consenting child in later times.
Traditional Catholic opposition to circumcision of any kind (even merely milah) continued into subsequent centuries. Many Church Fathers (for example, Sts. Justin Martyr, Cyril, Jerome, John Chrysostom, John Damascene, Augustine) spoke against it, not surprisingly, for religious reasons. Writing after the start of periah, St. Ambrose explained its detrimental character on ontological grounds: “Nature has created nothing imperfect in man, nor has she bade it be removed as unnecessary.” In other words, if God created the prepuce as a universal component of human genital structure (for both male and female), then it must have an important and a “very good” purpose (see Genesis 1:31, Wisdom 11:24).
According to the General Council of Vienna (1311), “Christians may not be enticed into Judaism; neither may they be circumcised for any reason.” During the Council of Florence (1438-1445), Pope Eugene IV signed the bull Cantate Domino (1441-1442), which warns:
“All, therefore, who after that time [the promulgation of the Gospel] observe circumcision and the Sabbath and the other requirements of the [Mosaic] law, it [the Holy Roman Church] 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.”
In this sweeping injunction against circumcision in general (a fortiori the mutilation of periah), no exceptions are made for parents who vainly desire cosmetic or aesthetic re-sculpting for their son, thinking “he will look better that way” – a frivolous reason in light of the considerable risks of unnecessary painful surgery on a neonate (hemorrhage, infection, ulceration, partial or total disfigurement, and even death). Nor for those who are pressured by quasi-compulsory social norms into feeling that their son must “match” a mutilated father or brother or cousin or classmate. Neither personal nor cultural ends can justify the morally objectionable means of confiscatory surgery on a healthy body, coercing a lad into surrendering a valuable part of his God-given masculine endowment (nowadays for the gain of biotech companies who reap huge profits from processing foreskins acquired through cooperative hospitals).
Even if the statistically prophylactic benefits that have been alleged amidst much controversy were confirmed (and all have been debunked thus far, including such standard reasons as preventing penile cancer and AIDS), there would still remain blatant ethical problems in damaging a presently healthy organ in order to prevent the possible contraction of some future ailment. Either the purported benefit would accrue to the boy or not. If not, offering instead only potential advantage for some hypothetical parties (such as theoretically reducing the odds of transmitting cancer to a future wife or a venereal disease to other so-called “sex partners”), then the boy’s currently healthy body is patently being treated as a mere object of utility for society, and hence his sacred human dignity is being gravely debased. In such a case, the surgery is inherently abusive. But even if the intention is to benefit him personally, there is no way for anyone other than God to know whether a projected unfavorable scenario will ever materialize, and thus no way to know what a proportionate trade-off now would be. Operating in infancy with no medically warranted justification guarantees a definite deformity and disability for a formerly normal system – a wound that could well have turned out to be utterly needless.
Of course, it is true that if organs are excised, then every possibility of localized disease is thwarted. But this logic would lead to everyone walking around with missing bodily members (not even walking, if the feet were to become a prophylactic target). A principle of routine pre-emptive surgery, if applied consistently, would require the universal removal of several bodily organs much more susceptible to serious disease than the prepuce (for example, tonsils, appendix, prostate, breasts).
With regard to hygiene (an obsessive concern of the Victorian era), a baby is actually safer with the defense of a prepuce to hinder urethral entrance of diaper contaminants. Yes, it would be “convenient” (saving time and effort) not to have to wash certain bodily areas, for example the folds of the ears, but no one advocates routine slicing of the outer ears for this reason. Similarly, females have genital folds more interiorly convoluted than what intact males have, demanding more meticulous cleansing, but in the West it would be viewed with horror to advise the removal of healthy female parts for the sake of convenience for girls and women. It promotes a double-standard, then, for male circumcision to be recommended on the grounds of better hygiene; indeed, surgery is certainly an extremely drastic substitute for the remedy of simple water and mild soap. The counsel of “convenience” has undoubtedly been a scare tactic aimed at parents, as has the discredited diagnosis of “congenital phimosis” (which stems from ignorance about the duration of time required for a fully retractile foreskin). If given the option, it can be presumed that an ordinary man would rather take an extra minute for daily washing than to have lost a normal part of his anatomy as a baby without his consent. This tube is fleshly matter that really does matter: it is indispensable in the sense that no other bodily organ can replicate its function.
Moreover, non-therapeutic child circumcision is a violation of the Golden Rule, a cardinal principle of morality. Indeed, how many people would want a portion of any organ (never mind a most intimate one) of their body to be cut off without medical necessity and without their consent?
The bottom-line is that, while parents enjoy many prudential prerogatives in their children’s upbringing (where they live and attend school, how they worship, what they eat, which amusements they engage in, whom they associate with, etc.), parental rights end when it is a question of irrevocably altering a child’s natural anatomy and physiology – as though their offspring were designer property instead of precious gifts granted them by God for their loving custody. Though infinitely less grievous than legalized abortion, this socially-sanctioned option for routine infringement against the inviolable human right of babies to their own bodily integrity is nevertheless unjust and should be banned.
Rosemary Romberg, Circumcision: The Painful Dilemma (1985)
Ronald Goldman, Circumcision: The Hidden Trauma (1997);
Questioning Circumcision: A Jewish Perspective (1998)
David Gollaher, Circumcision: A History of the World’s Most Controversial Surgery (2000)
Robert Darby, A Surgical Temptation: The Demonization of the Foreskin and the Rise of Circumcision in Britain (2005)
Leonard Glick, Marked in Your Flesh: Circumcision from Ancient Judea to Modern America (2005)
Several videos of actual circumcisions are available on YouTube for those who feel they can tolerate watching even a portion of one of them: Circumcision Video (Plastibell Circumcision) by Selva3310; Plastibell circumcision by lindies 18; Circumcision by Brownyman; Medical Gallery – Male Circumcision by medicalgallery; The Surgery: Infant Circumcision Part 1 by newbornbabycare; Circumcision Video by Nathan1097; Birth As We Know It: Circumcision by mgmbill; Neonatal Circumcision; Mother Nurse Intactivist: Gillian Longley, RN by Bonobo 3D.