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Circumcising religious liberty from the culture

08-19-2012Fr. John LettersFr. John

Dear Friends,

Circumcising religious liberty from the culture…

A court in Cologne, Germany recently ruled the religious practice of circumcision on boys amounts to 'grievous bodily harm" and that the "fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents". (It never phased the court that a fetus is denied the right to bodily integrity.) German Chancellor Angela Merkel has promised to overturn the court's decision but was met with opposition from medical and child welfare groups who view circumcision as religiously motivated child abuse. Both Muslims and Jews practice circumcision though it is primarily seen as a practice fundamental to Judaism, which would make you think a German Court would be a little more sensitive to the anti-Semitic overtones of the case.

Yet the decision by the high court in Cologne was believe it or not, not motivated by anti-Semitism (the case involve a Muslim boy) but by an insistence on pitting human rights against each other of human rights as well as a worldview that is hostile to religious practice. Once again we see every problem framed in the language of human rights. Here the religious rights of the child are pitted against the right to maintain bodily integrity as well as the rights of the child verses the rights of the parents.

And more recently public officials in the Netherlands are pushing for a ban on the practice until a boy is at least 15yrs old (ouch!) and can make up his own mind. Since in their minds circumcision causes unnecessary pain and has no medical benefit (not true: it reduces the risk of HIV transmission). Ironically many of this same crowd believes and promotes that children with Gender Identity Disorder should be given hormones that thwart the process of puberty and the development of genitalia or breasts. Obviously if it has to do with religion and the worship of God it is given a red light and if it has to do with seeking pleasure and worshiping the flesh it is green lighted.

Aside from a profound lack of understanding of the meaning of religious circumcision and its historical significance for the Jews, the circumcising of circumcision reveals how much bitterness the cultural elites have toward religious practice and their profound indifference to religious liberty. It also shows how quickly religious liberty is being supplanted in favor of other civil rights. The simple explanation is that if you do not exercise your religious rights you will soon be convinced of their unimportance and surrender them. And it never dawns on those who see religious liberty as a relic of a bygone time that the rest of us still exercise it and value it.

But it goes beyond personal taste and convictions. Religious liberty is a bulwark against the raw power of the state against the individual. Hitler saw the state as the "the vital expression, the living will of the national conscience". And when the national conscience is unhinged from the Judeo-Christian ethic then things like racial superiority and declaring some as "unfit" for human life can be justified. Sadly what is being missed is the immense spiritual significance of circumcision for Jews and how the practice over time has bolstered the notion of human exceptionalism in Western civilization. The practice of circumcision teaches us that out of all creation humans alone belong to God and hence have a dignity beyond that of the rest of creation. David P. Goldman, writing in "Tablet" put it best:

To say that life is sacred means in plain English that our lives belong not to us, but to God, so that it is not within our purview to stifle newborns or expose our senile grandmothers. We make something sacred by giving it to God and receiving it back from him, as Abraham gave and received his son Isaac. Circumcision of Jewish infants reenacts Abraham's sacrifice: The infant boy is given to God and enters into covenant with God, by which we affirm the sanctity of his life.

That is the origin of the sanctity of life in human history. The Jewish people have upheld it for nearly 4,000 years. Christianity emulates circumcision through baptism, which the early church instituted in opposition to infanticide. In this case, Jesus' blood substitutes for the blood of the circumcised infant.

The ruling elite, the chattering classes has a growing contempt for religious belief as evidenced by this little example of trying to ban circumcision. On our side of the Ocean this attempt to reduce religious freedom to mere private worship is playing out in many ways through the endless lawsuits that attempt to scrub religious symbols from the public square, through government regulations that intrude into the Church and family and the cultivation of hostility directed at religious believers. We have to stop thinking that democracy can save us from repression. Rule of the majority can quickly become a tyrant and democracy can easily become a false idol. A robust application of religious freedom holds both of these at bay.


Fr. John Bonavitacola