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Circumcision for Christians

Here is an ancient idea of Catholic spirituality, which we almost never contemplate: “In Christ you have been circumcised with the circumcision of Christ,” St. Paul writes. (Col. 2:11)  Baptism is rightly understood as a circumcision that is spiritual, not fleshly. As a result, as members of Christ’s Church, we can refer to ourselves, as the Jewish people once did, by metonymy, as “The Circumcision.” “We are The Circumcision! – We who worship through the Spirit of God.” (Phil. 3:3)

Unlike the earliest Christians, few of us are converts from Judaism, so we have little reason to compare our practices with Jewish traditions.

But the main reason we do not contemplate this idea, I think, is an implicit, cultural Protestantism, which has the tendency of dissolving, and dismissing from our thought, everything mysterious.

I know because I was a Protestant once.  Isn’t circumcision an empty and deceptive “work of the flesh”?  Surely it is “an external religious practice lacking spiritual content,” as the Zondervan Bible Encyclopedia puts it: “The history of circumcision illustrated one of the basic paradoxes which plague religion. Man needs symbols as a means of expressing religious faith. Repeatedly, however, the symbols have become ends in themselves. . . . Periodically symbols must be renewed, or discarded.”  In that perspective, circumcision is one among many arbitrary symbols, of utilitarian value, at best.

Such is the common opinion today, but it was not always so. I was stunned to discover a different view reading St. Thomas’ commentary on the great penitential Psalm 51.

David laments there, “For behold I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.” (v. 7) If proof texts were possible, this single verse would establish original sin. The prophet Samuel charged the king, “You have cut down Uriah the Hittite with the sword; his wife you took as your own.” (2 Sam. 12:9)  Yet David’s sorrow is so complete that he traces his adultery and murder back to his afflicted nature.

As St. Thomas Aquinas explains lucidly, “Here he sets forth the root of guilt. The root of all actual guilt is original sin, which is contracted from parents tainted with that sin. This tainting was in the father of David himself, and in his mother.”

What comes next in the commentary seems even more interesting.  Like any good interpreter, St. Thomas poses a series of questions about the verse.  Since original sin is one thing, why does David use the plurals, “iniquities” and “sins”? Because, Thomas says, although original sin is one in essence, it is multiple in power, since it leads to many sins.


But had not the parents of David been cleansed from original sin through circumcision, and so David would not have been conceived in (their) original sin? Here I was astonished to find that St. Thomas does not deny the underlying premise! “It must be said that baptism and circumcision do cleanse the soul of original guilt.”  He goes on to say, however, that each newborn child needed to be circumcised anew, just as children of baptized parents need to be baptized as well, because original sin is transmitted through the generative act.

St. Thomas discusses circumcision at length, tellingly, in his treatise on baptism:  “All authorities are agreed in saying that original sin was remitted in circumcision.” (ST III.70)  Moreover, he argues, circumcision imparted sanctifying grace sufficient for avoiding sin, and which made its recipient fit for eternal life in heaven.

Its main difference from baptism, then?  “Baptism operates instrumentally by the power of Christ’s Passion, whereas circumcision does not; therefore Baptism imprints a character that incorporates man in Christ.” An interesting view: circumcision is not a mere symbol, but neither is it a sign that accomplishes what it signifies.

People say that all Catholic truth is virtually contained in any single teaching.  As a thought exercise, consider some of the truths reflected in this idea that circumcision remits original sin:

(1) If we affirm this full, and frankly mysterious, teaching about the ancient Jewish rite, then, to distinguish baptism from it, we are compelled to affirm that baptism, like other sacraments, works objectively, ex opere operato, “from the work as done,” rather than merely on the basis of subjective belief – since circumcision did that already.  That is, the import of the entire sacramental system becomes plain.  Alternatively, if we want to cling to a subjective view of baptism, we must say that circumcision was merely an empty symbol.

(2) We are led to affirm more strongly our continuity, as Christians, with the religion of the Israelites, and thus our solidarity with our “elder brothers and sisters.” Why? Because circumcision and sacrifices were “types” of our baptism and the Mass – not types in the sense of similarly empty symbols, but effective “types,” which conveyed God’s power and grace, although in different ways.

(3) The vitally important truth, that original sin is not a matter of poor social influences or “structures,” but is “in us” and transmitted by procreation – through the father, it has been held, not the mother – is vividly brought home by the analogy of baptism with circumcision.

(4) At the same time the fittingness of the Virgin birth becomes apparent because it would not be fitting for the Messiah to say, with David, “behold, I was conceived in iniquities.”

(5) That the sacramental remedy for this wound to our nature, and separation from God, should in some sense involve the male sex distinctively – Holy Orders now, after the Incarnation, just as the circumcision, then – can no longer be attributed (as critics say) to some relatively recent European bias, but will appear to be God’s decision, in His Providence, deriving from the original calling of Abraham in faith, 4,000 years ago.

Viewed accurately, baptism as “The Circumcision of Christ” seems a prime example of what Cardinal Lustiger used to call “access in Christ to all the spiritual riches of Israel.”


*Image: The Circumcision of Christ by (the workshop of) Giovanni Bellini, c. 1500 [National Gallery, London]

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.