It never fails. I mention the fact that I have quite a collection of impressive tattoos, and the person will retort, “What?! You? You have tattoos….but you’re sooooo Catholic/Christian!” This is the point where I usually make my blank, are-you-kidding-me face. To this day, the church has made no pronouncements on tattoos or their moral standing, aside from the Catholic Council of Northumberland in 786, which stated a Catholic bearing a tattoo “for the sake of God” was deemed worthy of praise. Obviously, they can be sinful, but also, they can be morally licit, even sanctifying, as in my case. Why does it’s moral status even matter? I’ll tell you why.
The Pew Research Center survey found that 36 percent of Americans ages 18–25 have a tattoo, 40 percent of those 26-40, and 10 percent of those 41-64. That’s a nice chunk of people, and with 1 in every 7 people on earth being Catholic, it’s a safe bet that some of these tattooed people are Catholic.
So, what can we say about the morality of tattoos? Motivation can make tattoos sinful. Are you doing it to spite someone? Are you doing it because the image, whatever it is, is taking the place of God in your life? Is it offensive or counter-catholic? Does this tattoo in someway, disfigure or mutilate your body’s purpose and innate dignity? These could all be reasons a tattoo would not be morally licit, according to the church teaching.
Caption: This watercolor tattoo is a powerful
reminder of the great migration and struggle
of my grandparents to come to the US
and to bring our family freedom and faith.
Some parties argue that all tattoos are banned in Leviticus 19:26. They forget that immediately after that, in Leviticus 19:27, shaving your beard is banned, as well. This is a great demonstration of how relevant the pronouncements in Leviticus are to the modern Christian or Catholic. That is, they aren’t.
This isn’t to say that the Levites did not have good reasons, in their time. The most probable reason they had for banning tattoos was that they desired to distinguish themselves from pagan tribes in many ways, including circumcision and dietary restrictions. Other proposed reasons are that tattooing with the cremains of dead relatives was a practice in pagan tribes, and the very real threat of infection and death would not have allowed tattooing to be done without great personal risk.
See? Leviticus wasn’t all crazy! Having said this, we are not bound anymore to this Levitical law, than we are to the Levitical belief that wearing braids makes you a harlot or that you can’t shave your beard or eat rare meat.
Some would argue that permanence is the issue, yet, I would argue that our God is a God of permanence. We receive indelible marks in baptism, confirmation, and in other sacraments, albeit invisible ones. God asked the Jews to circumcise themselves, which is both invasive, as far as body modifications go, and permanent. It even risked infection given the primitive times, so I don’t think we can argue God is against permanent body modification completely, even ones that dramatically alter someone as circumcision is in fact, a dramatic modification.
Caption: My coat of arms of the Holy See.
This has gotten me through many a dark times.
Further for your consideration, many permanent body modifications are common place in western culture, and we do not even see them as such. Teeth whitening, removal of wisdom teeth, braces, plastic surgery, implants, fillers, waxing, laser eye surgery, hair cutting and coloring, trimming of nails, removal of hair on the face and eyebrows, eye color implants, and more, are part of the slew of the possibly permanent things done to the body. Many of these are no more cosmetic than a tattoo and equally unnecessary. Now, there are groups which completely eschew cosmetics of any kind, such as the Amish. At least, they are consistent! A woman with make-up, whitened and straightened teeth, colored hair, and nicely shaped eyebrows, scoffing at tattoos might be considered a hypocrite by some.
It is not objective to single out tattooing because your culture is biased against this particular modification or sees it as a taboo, only for sailors and prostitutes. That may be a real association in the “baby boomer” anglosphere, but it does not reflect the reality of tattoos. An argument against tattoos, can rarely, not also be used against cutting your hair, makeup, and ear piercings. Something does not become sinful simply, because it is permanent, or marriage would be sinful. It’s also, permanent.
I have heard of devout and respected Christians saying that they will disown their children, if they get a tattoo/piercing. What kind of Christian love is that? What kind of message does that send? You are only my child, so long as your body looks how I think it should look? People should be more concerned with how they are treating one another, which is something they should control, than their adult childrens’ appearances, something they should not control. In the end, it’s a superficial topic about which parents are notorious for making profound and hurtful statements. No good can come of such treatment.
This is a narrow and uncultured view of tattoos. The church is Catholic, with catholic meaning “universal”. The church runs the gamut from expressive charismatics to silent cloistered nuns to traditional Latin mass attendees to Divine Liturgies in the East. It is very exclusive and judgemental to assume that because something does not suit you or your brand of faith, that it should not and cannot suit another or that it is sinful. I remember upon conversion, feeling very unsure if I could be a good Catholic because the people surrounding me did not have tattoos or piercings or funny colored hair. I felt like this strange outlier. Silly me! The church is universal. It encompasses people of every walk of life.
Caption: White ink “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus”.
Blessedly, in her wisdom, the universal church has not even remotely tried to legislate the view point of a small, puritanical subset of the global church. There are many tribal cultures where tattooing is a right of passage and a social norm, unrelated to religion. There are many cultures in Latin America where it is not seen as a moral question, at all. Many, many Catholics in Mexico can be found proudly displaying gorgeous depictions of their patron, Our Lady of Guadalupe. There are cultures who change the shapes of their heads, lengthen their necks, wear extensive and colorful make-up, and stretch their lips, without depriving the body of original function. It is completely possible for someone with an elongated neck to be a good Catholic, just as it is possible for someone with a tattoo to be, as well.
But, what about Chinese foot binding, you exclaim! As a female descendant of women who suffered foot binding, this is an ideal modification to use to make a distinction. This modification was not morally licit because it deprived the body part of its original function, use, and inflicted unspeakable pain on women. This would be mutilation, or more actually, forced mutilation, as it began when girls were between 3 and 6 years old. They weren’t choosing this.
Caption: Traditional Polynesian head tattoos
which signify status in the culture.
No pontification on bodily modifications would be completely without discussion of intent. Intent is very important with body modifications. The aim to inflict pain on oneself would not be a body modification, but self mutilation, also, prohibited by the church. Pain is a side effect of many body modifications, but it can never be the goal.
The church clearly and vehemently protests and condemns mutilation and self-harm. Some have argued that tattoos are a form of mutilation, but the Catholic and English definition of mutilation is “an action which deprives oneself or another of a bodily organ or its use” or “altering the body in non-therapeutic ways that interfere with the body’s ability to function”. Tattooing in no way deprives the skin of its original function. It is still very much able to insulate, protect from the elements, and prevent the loss of body fluid via evaporation; therefore, this cannot constitute mutilation. It is an alteration, but not a mutilation, in the sense of the definition.
More to it, the church has a long standing tradition of individuals who have practiced corporal mortification, and while this does require extreme caution and sage spiritual guidance before attempting, it has never been outright condemned.
This brings us back to the intention of the modification, which will vary as many times as there are people who have them. My own tattoos serve to remind me of my devotion to my faith, my marriage vows, and the great struggle of my grandparents. They are deeply, powerful in my life, and I benefit greatly from them spiritually. They remind me of the permanence of my baptism and my marriage, and even serve as a conversation starter with other tattooed individuals. Many times this has opened a conversation about faith, where perhaps, a less decorated Catholic could not.
The steep rise in tattoos likely has other meanings, as well. They speak to the human need and desire for permanence in our lives. People are more afraid to tattoo one anothers’ names on their bodies, than they are to get married! This is a great tragedy, but demonstrates my point, well. We need permanence, and more and more people are not getting this permanence in their faith lives.
Body modifications, in some cases, can express the cultural loss of the intrinsic value of the human being, today. When the most perfect and beautiful are perceived most valuable, subliminally, we believe that if only we were more beautiful, more unique, more wonderful, then we would be valuable. The problem is, we are already of infinite value. Everyone one of us is the product of a desire for us, by our God. We can surely decorate or ornament our bodies in a way that is meaningful to us, but it can never change our value.