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Health And Family

Pomp and circumcision

KINDERGARTEN DAD - Tony Montemayor - The Philippine Star

It’s summertime!” screamed one particularly memorable newspaper ad during my boyhood. Right below this seemingly joyful declaration were the words “Painless” and Bloodless.” It was the tag line of a particular clinic in Cubao that specialized in circumcision (as well as selected venereal diseases) and it scared the hell out of many young boys like me. I remember agonizing over the ad for hours, wondering if they could indeed deliver on their promise. I ended up having my “summertime” done at the UP Clinic in Diliman. I psyched myself up by imagining that I was Steve Austin, a.k.a. The Six Million Dollar Man, and that the doctors were going to make me “bionic.” It worked well enough until just about the time they asked me to lie down on the operating table and I saw my parents peering through a small window outside the OR. At that point, a wave of panic engulfed me but I was too embarrassed to show it. I covered my eyes with my left arm and tightly held a rosary with my right hand. The doctors and nurses complimented me afterwards, saying that I was one of the few boys who had not screamed and cried throughout the procedure. They asked me to take a peek before covering me up, but I refused. I was shell-shocked. I just silently donned a sacristan’s robe and crept out of the OR, ironically enough, just like the bionic man in one of his famous slow-motion running sequences.

The word “circumcision” comes from Latin circum (meaning “around”) and caedere (meaning “to cut”). From a surgical standpoint, that’s exactly what they do. They cut around a certain area of the male genitalia (or if you can excuse my French, the penis), and remove all or some of the foreskin. There are several surgical techniques but if I recall correctly, mine was performed with a scalpel using the freehand method.  I suppose that I should consider myself luckier than others. My older brothers had to go through it via the pukpok method by a river in our province. I won’t go into the gory details of their ordeal. Let us just say that it involved a labaha (barber’s blade), guava leaves, and a local surgeon (hopefully not the same barber who owned the blade).

Circumcision or pagtutuli is considered by an overwhelming number of Filipinos as an obligatory rite of passage to “manhood.” While it is estimated that only about 30 percent of men globally are circumcised, in the Philippines, the percentage is said to go as high as 98 percent. I never really tried to find out before why boys needed to be circumcised. I always assumed that there was a medical reason for it and that it was part of being Christian. I was therefore mildy shocked to find out that not only is its medical benefits doubtful; it may, in fact, even be considered to be contrary to Catholic teaching.

While the practice goes all the way back to the Old Testament, the Catholic Church has long rejected the necessity of circumcision for becoming a believer in Christ. The most famous renunciation came from St. Paul in Acts 15 and Galatians 2. In the 14th century, Pope Eugene IV and the Council of Florence issued a decree condemning the practice. This was affirmed by Pope Pius XII in 1952. In his article The Morality of Circumcision, Fr. John Dietzen MA, STL, wrote that “…while non-therapeutic male circumcision remains common in some places, as a general practice it is forbidden in Catholic teaching for more basic reasons of respect for bodily integrity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, ‘Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against moral law’ (N. 2297). Elective circumcision clearly violates that standard. It is an amputation and mutilation, and, to my knowledge, no significant medical group in the world defends it as having any therapeutic value.”

In truth, however, and even though I was clutching a rosary during my entire procedure, I don’t think that Filipinos get circumcised because of religion. Perhaps it may have more to do with our pagan beliefs as evidenced by our continued belief in the supposed benefits of circumcision like improved fertility, virility, and sudden growth spurts. But most of all, I think it’s really driven by our fraternity-like societal norms. The primary reason why boys wanted to get circumcised during my grade school years was that no one wanted to be called supot (derogatory slang name for those who are not yet circumcised). It was one of the most painful insults that you could heap on another boy. Uncircumcised boys guarded their situation dearly and woe to the boy who got discovered. It’s the same reason why I had my son circumcised as a baby. But as with fraternity initiations, I wonder once more why we Filipinos think that we have to physically hurt ourselves (or others) in order to become “men.”  In fact, writing this article has caused me to reflect on what exactly do we Filipinos think manhood is really all about. I’m a believer of tradition and maybe there is still some intelligent justification for getting circumcised (though I’m no longer so sure). But perhaps the more important insight is that it’s also time for a new kind of circumcision, new rites of passage for the young and old alike that can really help us cut off the rot that pervades in our society today. Because if all it takes to be a man, to be a Christian, in the Philippines is to have your maleness shaped like a German World War II helmet, then if I may blasphemously paraphrase St. Paul, that doesn’t amount to d-ck sh-t!

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