The Morality of Circumcision
from “The Question Box,” October, 2004, by Father John J. Dietzen, M.A., S.T.L.
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.
Fr. John J. Dietzen (1927 – 2011) was a priest of the Diocese of Peoria in Illinois. He authored three books and wrote a syndicated column of questions and answers on Catholic belief and practice for the Catholic News Service in Washington, DC.