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Frequently Asked Questions

Revised and updated October 26, 2015.

Q. 1. What does the Catholic Church teach regarding circumcision? Should it be practiced?

A. 1. From the document, "Cantate Domino" (A.D. 1442), signed by Pope Eugene IV, from the 11th session of the Council of Florence (A.D. 1439, a continuation of the Council of Basle, A.D. 1431, and the Council of Ferrara, A.D. 1438), we learn the following:

[The Catholic Church] "firmly believes, professes and teaches that the legal prescriptions of the Old Testament or the Mosaic law, which are divided into ceremonies, holy sacrifices and sacraments, because they were instituted to signify something in the future, although they were adequate for the divine cult of that age, once our Lord Jesus Christ who was signified by them had come, came to an end and the sacraments of the new Testament had their beginning. Whoever, after the Passion, places his hope in the legal prescriptions and submits himself to them as necessary for salvation and as if faith in Christ without them could not save, sins mortally. It does not deny that from Christ's passion until the promulgation of the Gospel they could have been retained, provided they were in no way believed to be necessary for salvation. But it asserts that after the promulgation of the gospel they cannot be observed without loss of eternal salvation. Therefore it denounces all who after that time observe circumcision, the [Jewish] sabbath and other legal prescriptions as strangers to the faith of Christ and unable to share in eternal salvation, unless they recoil at some time from these errors. Therefore it strictly orders 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."

Some Catholics and web masters of Catholic web sites, to support their distortion of the aforementioned proclamation, state that the Catholic Church has condemned circumcision. In truth, the aforementioned proclamation of the Catholic Church was written in condemnation of those who continued to practice the Mosaic Law. Note the following parts of the Proclamation:

1.a. Identifies what is condemned: "the legal prescriptions of the Old Testament or the Mosaic law, which are divided into ceremonies, holy sacrifices and sacraments, because they were instituted to signify something in the future.."

1.b. Identifies when it came to an end: "came to an end and the sacraments of the new Testament had their beginning..."

1.c. Identifies the Jewish tradition: "Therefore it denounces all who after that time observe circumcision, the [Jewish] sabbath and other legal prescriptions as strangers to the faith of Christ..." (Not just circumcision alone, but other practices alongside of it.)

1.d. Condemns the association of the Jewish tradition with the Christian faith: "Therefore it strictly orders 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."

In summary, no one is saved by the practice of circumcision. No Christian is saved by practicing the Mosaic Law. This truth is supported by passages that are found in the Holy Bible where it says, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love." [Gal. 5:6] "Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything." [1 Cor. 7:18-9]

Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles tells us that when certain individuals came down from Judea, they were teaching the brothers, 'Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.' [Acts 15:1] On that subject, the Church proclaimed: "Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles [regarding the necessity of circumcision] who are turning to God..." [Acts 15:19]

Some Catholic scholars, such as Fr. John J. Dietzen, a retired priest and columnist, have argued that paragraph number 2297 from the Catholic Catechism (Respect for bodily integrity) makes the practice of elective and neonatal circumcision immoral. [2]

“Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church # 2297]

John Paul Slosar and Daniel O'Brien, however, argue that the therapeutic benefits of neonatal circumcision are inconclusive, but that recent findings that circumcision may prevent disease puts the practice outside the realm of paragraph 2297.[1] They also argue that statements regarding mutilation and amputation in the "Respect for bodily integrity" paragraph are made within the context of kidnapping, hostage taking or torture, and that if circumcision is defined as an amputation, any removal of tissue or follicle, regardless of its effect on functional integrity, could be considered a violation of moral law. [1]

The proportionality of harm versus the benefit of medical procedures, as defined by Directives 29 and 33 of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (National Conference of Catholic Bishops),[3] have also been interpreted to support [1] and reject [4] the practice of circumcision. These arguments represent the conscience of the individual writers, and not the official stance of the Church.

[1] Slosar, J.P.; D. O'Brien (2003). "The Ethics of Neonatal Male Circumcision: A Catholic Perspective". American Journal of Bioethics 3 (2): 62–64.

[2] Father John J. Dietzen. The Morality of Circumcision. The Tablet, Brooklyn, N.Y., 30 October 2004, p. 33.

[3] "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, Fourth Edition". U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. 2001. Retrieved 2008-04-11. "Directive 29 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. Directive 33 The well-being of the whole person must be taken into account in deciding about any therapeutic intervention or use of technology. Therapeutic procedures that are likely to cause harm or undesirable side-effects can be justified only by a proportionate benefit to the patient."

[4] "Respect for bodily integrity: a Catholic perspective on circumcision in Catholic hospitals". American Journal of Bioethics 3 (2).

The Catholic Church currently maintains a neutral position on the practice of non-religious circumcision, and has never addressed the issue of infant circumcision specifically. [1 above] It has remained neutral about biblical male circumcision, neither requiring it, nor forbidding it. It is known that the Jews, the Moslems and some African tribes practice circumcision for religious reasons. Some physicians recommend circumcision for reasons of health and cleanliness. But the fact remains, the Catholic Church does not prohibit circumcision providing it is not performed as a condition of becoming a Catholic or to be saved.

So why is circumcision practiced?

• Some do it for religious reasons (necessity for salvation), such being condemned by the Catholic Church and the Holy Bible.

• Some do it because it is a cultural practice.

• Some do it because it is part of their tradition, the sons being circumcised as their fathers were circumcised or as the mother's brothers were circumcised.

• Some practice it for medical reasons, the Doctor recommending it. Under no circumstances should a boy be circumcised by a "quack doctor" in the bush who will use a knife or a blade to perform the ceremony.

• Some practice it for personal hygiene. A circumcised penis requires little care in life. A natural, intact penis requires proper washing while bathing. Later, when the foreskin can be retracted (something that often does not occur until adolescence), the boy should be taught to pull back his foreskin to wash his penis. Forcible retraction of the foreskin results in pain and injury, and should not be done.

• Some practice it as a preventive measure against cancer and other diseases:

- Circumcision may offer a minor decrease of incidences of urinary tract infections (UTI). In fact, UTIs are about 10 times more likely in uncircumcised males compared to circumcised male babies during their first year of life.

- Circumcision is thought of by many parents as the hygienic choice, with fewer incidences of problems like meatitis (the bacterial inflammation and irritation at the opening of the penis) in circumcised males. But even though it’s easier to keep a circumcised penis clean; males that wash beneath the retractable foreskin properly usually suffer no issues when it comes to hygiene.

- Medical research shows that circumcision offers some protection from certain types of cancer. For instance, circumcision reduces certain forms of penile cancer if HPV becomes trapped under a tight foreskin. Being snipped can also reduce the risk of cervical cancer in their female sexual partners.

• Some practice circumcision for a cosmetic reason.

• Some do it because Jesus was circumcised. To them that is a good enough reason. The fact remains that Jesus was circumcised by His parents in order to abide by the Jewish law which holds that males should be circumcised eight days after birth during a Brit milah ceremony, at which they are also given their name.

• Some do it because God commanded Abraham to implement this practice:

"This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised, every male child in your generations, he who is born in your house or bought with money from any foreigner who is not your descendant. He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person vshall be cut off from his people; he has broken My covenant.” [Gen. 17:10–14]

They conclude that God must have had an underlying medical reason to command this. They consider this advise equal to the Bible's references to eat certain foods and spices which have proven in modern days to be beneficial to the health of individuals.

So should you have your son circumcised or not? Providing that you are not having your son circumcised with the belief that it is necessary for his salvation, you are free to do as you please.

There are some who will tell you horror stories regarding the practice of circumcision in order to influence you not to practice it. Such persons includes doctors and members of the clergy who have sexual hang ups. These individuals are not the type of individuals that you should be consulting for a second opinion if you are uncertain as to what you should do. In conclusion, it should be stated that as a means to end the practice of circumcision, some have alleged that there are no medical benefits to it. Recent research has proven that there are preventive health benefits to circumcision. So the choice is yours!

August 27, 2012 update from http://www.ctvnews.ca.

Title: Circumcision benefits outweigh risks, say U.S. pediatricians

The health benefits of circumcision in newborn boys outweigh the risks, says the American Academy of Pediatrics in its strongest statement yet in favour of the procedure.

In guidelines issued Monday, the influential physicians’ group says the latest scientific evidence shows that circumcision can reduce the risk of urinary tract infections in infants and cut the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, syphilis, and human papillomavirus or HPV, which causes cervical cancer in females as well as some oral cancers. As well, the procedure can also reduce the risk of penile cancer, the group said.

This new statement, published in the journal Pediatrics, comes down firmly in favour of the procedure, saying circumcision’s health benefits "justify access to this procedure for families who choose it."

It concludes that while the circumcision carries some risks of bleeding and infection, those complications are rare. As well, the procedure does not appear to adversely affect penile sexual function, sensitivity of the penis or sexual satisfaction later in life, the group concludes.

On March 4, 2013, the Ottawa Citizen newspaper reported that "Canada's pediatricians are about to update their advice on whether baby boys should be circumcised, revising and softening their stand for the first time in 17 years. Their review comes as new Canadian research suggests half of expectant parents would consider circumcision if they had a son - and that the single most important factor is the circumcision "status" of the father."

"A new study found that the circumcision rates are heavily influenced by whether or not the father is circumcised. Overall, half - 56 per cent - said they would consider pursuing circumcision if they had a son. In cases where the father of the expected baby was circumcised, 82 per cent were in favour of circumcision, versus 15 per cent when the father wasn't circumcised.

The newspaper continues by stating, "But after a special task force reviewed more than 1,000 studies published over the past 15 years, the American doctors' group now says that circumcision provides protection against urinary tract infections, penile cancer and the transmission of some sexually transmitted infections, including HIV." If such is true, and if parents are truly concerned about the well-being of their sons, would they not practice circumcision as a health related preventive measure?

The bottom line is that if parents are not going to practice circumcision, then they have a responsibility to ensure that their son(s) practice proper hygiene. That means teaching them to pull back the foreskin (when such is possible) and to clean their penis on a regular basis. Unfortunately the majority of parents do not do so because they find this too embarrassing to do as the child gets older.

As one Doctor puts it, "The most common causes of bad smell around the penis would be related to poor hygiene and skin infections. Uncircumcised (boys and) men need to pull their foreskin all the way back to wash the head of their penis once or twice a day with soapy water. If that is not done, then secretions and a substance called smegma can accumulate and cause a bad smell."

The above statements are the facts. The choice is yours, to circumcise or not to circumcise your son. Whatever decision you make, you will have to live with it.

A final word, as in all surgeries, there is always a risk of infection or sloppiness. For that reason, make sure that you entrust your son to a Doctor who has a clean record in performing circumcisions in a clean facility. You cannot entrust your son to a Doctor who has a history of hangovers and who may botch (make a mess of) the procedure.

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