The “Circumcision” Decision: A Catholic Critique

Author: David Lang

Reviewer:
J. Steven Svoboda

Brief disclaimer: David Lang is a colleague of mine with whom I have worked at times, and I am quoted in note 57 of this book.

Colleague David Lang has produced an interesting and unique, succinct book examining circumcision with reference to the author’s background as a Catholic and an ethicist.

I have a few reservations, mostly extending to ancillary issues rather than the book’s core concepts. First, I am not crazy about the somewhat amateurish-appearing formatting, as regrettably CreateSpace does not seem to offer a top-notch appearance to its books. Also, I generally prefer to see footnotes at the ends of chapters or at the book’s end rather than on each page, while I appreciate the countervailing argument of convenience. Many of the early pages are occupied to a large extent with notes rather than text, and I would have preferred either that the notes be shortened or at least some of the text in the notes be incorporated into the main body of the book. Lang should take care with his acronyms, using “RIC” at some points and “RMIC” at other points, both to mean routine infant circumcision.

Also, in my view, such a book badly needs a bibliography at the end so that interested readers can easily consult a summation of all sources quoted in preparing the book.

On the positive side, Lang is a likable, earnest author, very knowledgeable, perhaps even the world expert, in his corner of activism where the Catholic religion meets ethics and genital autonomy. While much of his book was previously published in article form, it is still useful to be cogently reminded that the current circumcision practice is very similar to the more extensive Jewish practice of periah, which greatly increased the cutting over the earlier practice known as brit milah. Lang also provides much appreciated detail on the historical path the practice took to develop in this manner.

Lang is enlightening when addressing in depth Catholic moral law and its applicability to issues of genital autonomy. Many readers will be able to relate to Lang’s extended, impassioned plea for genital autonomy on pp. 39-43. Catholic support for bodily integrity is discussed in some detail at several later points in the book, and the ironic (and perhaps quite revealing) point is made that dogs cannot lawfully be circumcised.

Lang’s summary of intact male genital anatomy on pages 76-77 and 79 is crisp and instructive. I did not care so much for the extended block quotations from other sources, preferring shorter, more targeted excerpts. An apparent assumption on the part of Lang that his audience members are heterosexual may puzzle many readers, especially given the deep connections between activism and the gay community.

It is interesting to hear about the long-standing belief of the Catholic church that mutilations are not permissible. Lang cites many different Catholic authorities on this point, sometimes almost to the point of redundancy, but at the same time the author is our best authority in this area and it is nice to have a wealth of prior writers on whose works we can draw. It is a bit hard to follow the significance of Lang’s extended analysis of the Principle of Double Effect.

A lengthy discussion of asserted benefits of circumcision brings in a discussion of position statements of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Medical Association (AMA), and even the World Health Organization (WHO). Such a discussion is hard to pull off and Lang is to be applauded for making the attempt. Inevitably, it gets a little tricky to pull everything together and fully address some of the more troubling statements of the AAP and the WHO. Still I think there is value in a more restrained summary of such statements and Lang provides this, regardless of whether observers like this reviewer might give the AAP and WHO less credence and might dispose of the claimed benefits a bit more easily than does Lang.

The chapter explaining how, starting about 160 years ago, America adopted a rabbinic rite does overlap somewhat with other chapters and is still enlightening.

One final disappointment is that the book somewhat trails off without providing a conclusion summarizing and pulling together the book’s different strands. This is understandable given the book’s provenance as several separate chapters but still I hoped for a bit more of an overall arc leading to some substantial conclusions and insights.

Lang writes simply and understandably. He is providing a service to his readers and has a humble and likable authorial voice. He lays out the ethics in an unarguable manner. His positions are less extreme/strong (choose your adjective) than many of us might prefer and yet that provides their very strength. His references can be dated. This book won’t be the most radical book you read on the topic and yet it does provide some pieces no one else is able to fill. Recommended.