No straightforward answer to this question. However, at a meeting with young people before the Synod of Catholic bishops, Pope Francis said; “don’t be afraid of tattoos“. … A tattoo can become a talking point and a way for the priest to find out more about an individual… (Mar 22, 2018). The Church doesn’t have any strict teaching about tattoos because in most cases they are culturally based and according to the Church cultures should be respected.
Unless something is objectively immoral, or we have immoral motives for doing it, Catholics are free to do as they wish. Due to diversity of culture, some texts in the Bible forbid tattoos while others consider tattoos as ornament. I think the best thing I can do in this bulletin is to give some insights from Scripture and Catholic teaching to help one come to a good decision in the conscience before or after making tattoos.
In the O.T, God commanded; “… do not tattoo yourselves” (Lev. 19:28). Also, “… your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit …” (I Cor. 6:19). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says; “unless performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended…, mutilations … performed on innocent persons are against the moral law” (CCC. 2297). While the Church does not have a specific teaching on tattoos, it definitively teaches that we are obligated to honor our bodies and to regard them as good. When we consider things like tattoos or piercings, we should be asking, am I honoring my body as a God-given good? (Gaudium et Spes. 14:1).
I don’t think it means that tattoos are “intrinsically evil.” It would be an error to say that every tattoo in every circumstance is always wrong. Some cultures use them for identity and decoration. For instance, having a mark on the forehead to indicate ones’ marital status for many Asian cultures. In Ethiopia, Christians have the custom of tattooing a cross on their forehead and the hand to express their Christian faith. That is why the Bible says; “I adorned you with jewelry, putting bracelets on your arms, a necklace about your neck, a ring in your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown on your head” (Ez 16:11–12).
God here is speaking to Jerusalem in the language of a groom addressing his bride. This doesn’t mean that everyone should go out and pierce their nose, but it does indicate that these sorts of decorative piercings are not objectively immoral, if God is using them as a means of describing how beautiful he has made his bride, Jerusalem. The context and culture, I believe are important aspects to look at when discussing the morality of tattoos. One key point is that in many of these cultural examples, tattoos are not only socially accepted; they are also often socially expected and accepted. So when you go for tattoos ask whether it is culturally expected and accepted.
In any case if your body was made by God and is beautiful just as it is, why add additional permanent marking that may lead to skin complications like cancer? The world is fighting against mutilation because of the scars it leaves behind. Sometimes an adolescent enjoys having a tattoo, but many as they grow old they regret because the same tattoo doesn’t carry the same meaning as it does with cultures.
Another aspect to consider is tattoos carry meaning. If you were to decide to get a tattoo, is it diabolic images, carrying ugly images, shocking images, images pertaining to horoscopes, and simply put, any image contrary to the Christian faith. Any image like this would surely fall into the category of sin. Lastly, are you under peer pressure or gangs? Make sure your choice comes from the conscience.
Fr. Thaddeus Mokaya, SMA