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The Circumcision Circumstance: High Stakes?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 03, 2014

Last week I wrote a little City Gates piece on the meaning of the Council of Florence’s condemnation of circumcision (see Against Circumcision: A Classic Out-of-Context Danger). Little did I know that this would ignite a firestorm of controversy on our Facebook page. It seems several respondents were far less interested in circumcision as a religious ceremony under the Old Law than as a mutilation of the human person today.

Some clearly found it inconceivable that I could have even brought up the subject without having clearly in mind the serious problem of contemporary mutilation. And this simply serves to show how different our outlooks can be. I did not know that circumcision was a contemporary secular concern for anybody. I had only two reasons for bringing it up: (a) Someone had asked me to interpret the passage on it at the Council of Florence; and, (b) This provided a stellar opportunity to demonstrate that Church teaching cannot be understood by jumping to conclusions based on what words mean to us, without examining what they mean in the context of the teaching itself. From this point of view, the topic was firmly in the CatholicCulture.org wheelhouse.

Now, frankly, I find this exegetical question far more interesting than the other one, and was surprised that there were readers who find circumcision deeply troubling, something which could be (or ought to be) included under the general immorality of bodily mutilation, particularly without consent.

When I was born, I believe all male infants were circumcised automatically in the United States, and there were thought to be sound medical reasons for doing so. In the next generation, this was less common. For our younger boys, we were told by the doctors that circumcision was no longer universally practiced, and asked if we wanted to forego it or, in effect, maintain consistency throughout the family.

Color me clueless, but I did not see it as a big issue then, and I don’t see it as a big issue now. Still, I do think that, in our current secular context, the question of whether to circumcise male infants should be made on sound medical grounds. It may or may not decrease infections; it may or may not have unfortunate side-effects; it may or may not cause death in some instances. As I remarked on the Facebook page, I had my tonsils removed as a boy because they were thought to contribute to the frequent colds and ear infections I experienced. It is my understanding that this medical opinion is no longer considered valid. My brother had his appendix removed, almost too late to save his life. We never know as much as we would like to know, and I do not regard myself as having been abused.

Nor do I regard God’s command of circumcision under the Old Law to have been immoral. That ought to be enough, I think, for Catholics to maintain a certain balance on this issue, to avoid making unwarranted spiritual and moral assumptions about people who “could do such a thing”. I do not mean to trivialize circumcision through what is surely a fairly trivial comparison but, after all, the very same questions can be raised about pierced ears (or other piercings). Mutilation is an emotionally charged word; whether a practice deserves to be tagged with that term surely depends upon its purpose, its severity, and its results. And if the matter should actually be medically and personally trivial, I have no doubt that cultural expectations can play a role as well.

Culture Always Enters the Equation

Moreover, we cannot quite escape cultural expectations even in discerning what is medically and personally trivial. Contraception is a case in point. It is at the very least odd that a particular culture can be outraged by circumcision while embracing the internal disfigurement and damage caused by contraception. Psycho-somatic drugs could be placed in a similar class. Are they always used wisely? What is the mutilatory price of behavior control? How is the constant wiggling of many boys diagnosed as a disorder to be medicated? There is reason, it would seem, for us to be extremely cautious in making such judgments. They can too easily cause most of us to be hoist by our own petards.

Of course, the fact that good people can disagree about such things does not mean good people should not advocate the position they deem to be best, advancing whatever arguments they find most important and most compelling (the two are, very often, not the same). That is why I have no objection to the spirited Facebook discussion, and also why I stand corrected in my ignorance that the points I raised about the Council of Florence could possibly engender a discussion about circumcision-as-mutilation that many people find far more important.

But the issues that bedeviled fifteenth-century Europe are not the issues that bedevil us today, and the Church has not, in fact, condemned the physical practice of circumcision, but only its practice as a Jewish religious ceremony by those who have received the Gospel. What was intended as part of the dispensation that pointed forward to fulfillment in Christ, the Church maintains, should not continue to be observed by those who have witnessed the fulfillment. To participate in such a religious ceremony suggests an absence of faith in Jesus Christ. It is to hedge one’s bets while giving scandal to others in matters pertaining to eternal life.

The rest can be debated within the family of the Church. The discussion may even be important. I am certainly glad to know about it, and to reflect on it. But, like the fathers of the Council of Florence, I have always been interested in the high-stakes games. And I suspect this discussion tells us far more about our low-stakes culture than it does about moral principles. In our own time, contraception is an example of something that qualifies as high stakes. With stakes like that, I can hang in all night, burning alcohol and running on fumes. But circumcision in the secular context? Well, maybe not so much.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: garedawg - Mar. 04, 2014 2:17 AM ET USA

    I decided to have my son circumcised because I was more familiar with resulting anatomy. However, I figured it was my duty to witness the procedure, since I had decided on it. After watching it, I prayed that my next child would be a girl. Fortunately, my prayers were answered!

  • Posted by: jjen009 - Mar. 03, 2014 9:49 PM ET USA

    I was not raised Jewish, but I and my brother were circumcised (birth years 1942 and 1944, respectively). When my sons were born, the doctor asked - main justification suggested was so that the boys wouldn't feel different from their father. They were both circumcised. The autonomous voluntarism of our time seems to me to mean that the only remaining grounds for morality is 'my will.'

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