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Against Circumcision: A Classic Out-of-Context Danger

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 27, 2014

Recently someone brought to my attention a quotation from the Council of Florence in 1442, and asked if I could explain it in a manner consistent with current Catholic practices and attitudes. Here is the quote:

“Therefore it [the Church] 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.”

This one was new to me. In digging around on the Internet, I saw a number of wild reactions. Some argued that this quote will make cafeteria Catholics of us all, for words are words, and they have meaning, and we cannot pretend that they do not. Others suggested that—hey, presto!—this decree was just “a cultural thing.” If I had looked harder, I would have found the opinion that circumcision of infants in modern hospitals is a mortal sin. A pox on all these houses of intellectual laziness!

The sentence is found in the “Decree in Behalf of the Jacobites” (sometimes called the “Bull of Union with the Copts”). In the fifteenth century, great strides were being made toward reunion between East and West. In the space of a few years, several Patriarchal groups were reunited with Rome, one of which was the Jacobites in Egypt. The Council of Florence issued several decrees announcing this good news and taking up the theological needs of each group.

For the Jacobites, one source of confusion was the question of whether the practices of the ancient Jewish Law could still be religiously observed. This is the context for the passage in question. The specific subject is “the law of the Old Testament, the Mosaic law, which is divided into ceremonies, sacred rites, sacrifices, and sacraments.” The Council discusses whether and when it became sinful to observe these religious rites: Not, it says, immediately following the death and Resurrection of Our Lord, but rather once the Gospel was preached.

In other words, the Decree asserts that once one receives the Gospel, it becomes sinful to observe the religious ceremonies of the Old Law, even if one is doing it without putting any particular hope in them. These ceremonies, it says, are oriented toward a future which has already come. To observe them for their Jewish spiritual value is to dishonor Our Lord. With respect to the mentioned loss of salvation, of course, the Decree does recognize the possibility of repentance, but the key point here is that it is in this context that the condemnation of circumcision is issued—the context of circumcision as a religious practice of the Old Covenant. In this context, circumcision is the rite that has been definitively replaced by baptism.

Because this context determines the meaning of the word “circumcision”, the Council of Florence cannot be construed as condemning a medical practice, completely disconnected from any religious ceremony, which just happens to have the same fleshly result. It is an admission of linguistic laziness to assume what any word means out of the context in which it is being used. Rule number one in these matters is that exegesis demands effort.

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Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Nurse Dolores - Mar. 03, 2014 12:22 AM ET USA

    As a Catholic, I value life. Infant circumcision kills over 100 baby boys every year in the United States, so it makes no sense to support circumcision of babies.....ever. Our genitals are perfect when we are born, as God created them. Circumcision has no medical benefit. Circumcision does not improve health. It carries a risk of disfigurement and death. The Catholic people outside of the United States do not cut their sons. Let's please come to our senses about this.

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