Questions and answers
Doctrinal Commission – International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services
Tattoos are more popular than ever. It seems as if every second person has a tattoo of some sort. Entertainers, professional athletes, barbie dolls and even some priests have them. With such a proliferation of tattoos and the rising interest in them, what does the Church teach about the practice?
In short, there is no clear teaching by the Church prohibiting tattoos. Opinions vary: some say that marking your body in this way is wrong, while others say that it is a legitimate form of self-expression. So who is right? Is there an objective answer to this question?
Many people turn to the Old Testament, specifically Leviticus 19:28, and state that God clearly prohibits them. This is because the word tattoo appears in this verse in some translations; for example, the NRSV version states, “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.”
Before looking at this verse in its context it is worth noting that Catholic tradition classifies the laws of Leviticus into three kinds of laws: ceremonial, judicial, and moral. Since the coming of Christ, the ceremonial and judicial laws no longer apply, but the moral laws do. The prohibition of same- sex relations in Lev 18:22, for example, is a part of the moral law and still applies, but Lev 19:26-27, which states it is not permissible to trim one’s beard or eat meat with the blood still in it, is part of the ceremonial law. There are many laws like this that are no longer applicable to Christians, and thus it is a mistake to quote Lev 19:28 out of its context and use it to justify a condemnation of tattoos.
To interpret Lev 19:28 properly, this verse must be read in its context. So what significance does the word “tattoo” have in its Levitical setting? After being rescued from slavery in Egypt the Israelites were caught between the cultures of Egypt and Canaan, being influenced by both. Recent archaeology has found some evidence of tattooing in Egypt. Women would tattoo various parts of their body in line with fertility customs. This was believed to be a good luck charm associated with the birthing process. In Canaan, rather than mark their bodies with ink, more extreme measures were used: scarification or branding, slashing, and gashing the skin. Archaeology has found that the Canaanites would slash their bodies for ritualistic purposes, especially to honour their gods and mourn their dead. It is this particular practice which Lev 19:28 seems to prohibit when it says “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead nor print any marks upon you.” It would seem likely, therefore, that God was forbidding scarification rather than tattooing as we know it today.
This different cultural context of this text is one of the reasons why there is no direct teaching by the Church on the subject of tattoos; however, this is hardly a license for unrestrained tattooing. A person still needs to “think before they ink.” In the first instance it is important to remember that we are not our own, we are God’s temple (1 Cor 6:19-20). We need to ask ourselves how much can we disfigure our bodies to suit our own desires without dishonoring the beauty of the human form as God made it.
There are other considerations as well. One is the motivation behind the desire for a tattoo. While self- expression is permissible to a certain extent, is the desire for a tattoo to glorify God or is it to glorify oneself? Is it a rash decision induced by peer pressure or alcohol, or is it something deeply meaningful that has taken much prayer, thought and consideration? What of the placement of the tattoo? Is it in a highly visible area on the body such as the face or neck, which are perhaps not the wisest places to have a tattoo, or is it in area that could lead other people to objectify you and turn their thoughts away from the Lord? What of the type of tattoo—is it an image or writing worthy of the temple of the Holy Spirit or is it mere graffiti containing obscenities or even blasphemies?
Opinions will be strong on both sides of this debate but we must careful not to make this an issue of fidelity to Catholic teaching, since there is no magisterial teaching on the subject. It is possible for Catholics to disagree on this issue in good faith. As with all things, the virtues of temperance, charity and prudence apply.