THE TABLET, Brooklyn, New York: Page 33, October 2004.
(The Tablet is the official newspaper of the diocese of Brooklyn.)

The Question Box

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.

Biographical note*

Father John James Dietzen, M.A., S.T.L., who is now retired from parish pastoral duties, has written a column for more than thirty years that is syndicated, distributed by the Catholic News Service, and carried in numerous Catholic publications across America.

Father Dietzen's background in the Catholic press, parish work, and in family life programs in and outside of his diocese qualify him for his role as "pastor in print." A native of Danville, Illinois, he studied at St. Bede College, Peru, Illinois, and at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary in Mundelein, Illinois, before his ordination to the priesthood for the Diocese of Peoria in June, 1954. He holds a Master of Arts degree in English, and Licentiate degree in Sacred Theology.

Father Dietzen's work as a priest includes 16 years as associate editor of The Catholic Post, weekly newspaper of the Peoria diocese, and service to the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada as secretary and member of the board of directors. In the same period, he was responsible for the Family Life programs in his diocese, and gave pre-marriage, marriage and family life education programs in many cities. He also conducted seminars on marriage for the armed forces in Alaska, Japan and the Philippine Islands, and gave retreats to high school students, men and women and married couples in many parts of the country.

In 1973, Father Dietzen elected to re-enter parish work full time. He served as pastor of St. Mark's Parish in Peoria for nine years, and in January, 1983, accepted a position as pastor of Holy Trinity Parish in Bloomington, Illinois, from which he has now retired. He has a background in radio broadcasting, and has been a popular radio guest on topic shows in Central Illinois, often appearing with clergy of other denominations in debates on timely subjects.

Father Dietzen began writing The Question Box column for The Catholic Post in 1975; it proved popular and was soon accepted by National Catholic News Service for nationwide publication.

*Based on information in The New Question Box: Catholic life in the '80s. Peoria: Guildhall Publishers, 1983.

(File created 5 November 2004)