Just days after criminal charges were filed against a rabbi in Germany for performing circumcisions comes major news from Yair Rosenberg in Tablet magazine: America’s leading group of pediatricians is set to endorse the procedure. Rosenberg writes:
A leaked copy of the new American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on circumcision, scheduled to be released on Monday, reveals a change in the prestigious medical body’s previous position (set in 1999) on the medical benefits of the procedure from “neutral” to “pro.” It details how a comprehensive evaluation of research from the last 15 years demonstrates that the medical benefits of circumcision—including “prevention of urinary tract infections, penile cancer, and transmission of some sexually transmitted infections”—outweigh the risks.
The importance of this cannot be overstated. The AAP is a driving force behind health policy in America, and the experts involved in its new statement are already going on record in major media outlets to advocate that circumcision be covered on public health plans like Medicaid. The statement solidifies the scientific consensus behind the advisability of infant male circumcision (noting that complications are more likely to arise when the procedure is performed later in life) and places the traditional practice squarely within the realm of sound medical science.
For Rosenberg’s whole report and the full text of the AAP’s statement, see here. This news obviously affects Jews and Muslims more than Christians, as the Christian perspective on circumcision is mixed. Given the Gospel message that salvation comes through faith, not through circumcision or other commandments of the Jewish law, it is not a traditional practice for Christians.
Citing the nullification of “the legal prescriptions of the old Testament or the Mosaic law” and warning against placing’s one eternal hope in them, the Catholic Church condemned circumcision in the 1442 Bull of Union with the Copts. It denounced “all who after (the promulgation of the Gospel) observe circumcision, the 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.”
With the discovery of circumcision’s health benefits, however, this teaching faded from view, and the Church’s current stance toward circumcision is neutral. (It is not a religious obligation because it’s not related to salvation, but it’s not prohibited because it may promote health.) Some Catholics argue that, soteriology aside, the prohibition against deliberately mutilating the body would forbid circumcision; others cite circumcision’s therapeutic benefits and regard the practice as at least not intrinsically immoral.
The Protestant Reformers generally shared the New Testament and early Catholic view. Martin Luther argued against circumcision, emphasizing that it was not necessary or helpful for salvation: “Moses and all the prophets testify that circumcision did not help even those for whom it was commanded, because they were of uncircumcised hearts. How, then, should it help us for whom it was not commanded?”
Yet Protestants along with Catholics now seem more open to the practice. David Neff offered a useful primer on Christian attitudes towards circumcision in Christianity Today last summer. After noting centuries of opposition, he attributes the recent shift to health campaigns and notes the simultaneous decline in anti-Semitism. His conclusion seems sensible:
Circumcision played an important role in changing Anglo-American attitudes toward Judaism. It prepared us for the recent theological emphasis on the significance of the body. Christians are exploring Jewish practices they once despised. Sabbath rest, particularly, has benefits that bridge the spiritual and the physical. So does biblical thinking and practice about sex and food. The current debate on circumcision is an opportunity to explore the sanctification of the body and to think about the things that connect Christians to—and disconnect them from—the physical children of Abraham.