All about tattoos…kind of. Over some time now I’ve come to gather a series of resources regarding the morality of modern-day tattoos from the teachings of the Catholic Church. This is by no means extensive though. Regardless, I’d like to share what I’ve found in hopes that it will provide the insight you need (or at least a beginner’s guide) to make an informed decision.
The Catholic Church has no explicit doctrine on the morality on tattoos. However, the act of and motivations for getting tattoos are broad enough to be seen through the perspective of broader church teachings.
A primary case against tattoos revolves around Leviticus 19:28 which reads:
You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord.
However, many would like to assert the maxim of context, that is look at it from the Mosaic perspective of the time the book was written, as the preceding verse states
You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.
It is argued here, that these laws are “not part of the unchanging moral law, but part of the ritual law specific to the Old Testament.” They continue:
Many commentators believe that this prohibition was intended to separate Israel from its Canaanite neighbors; some believe that the cuttings in the flesh and tattoo marks to which the verse refers were part of idolatrous Canaanite worship.
The arguments regarding Mosaic law in the Christian context continue, but in a tangent that exceeds the scope of this post.
The 4th and 5th Commandments:
Minors, or those who are dependent on their parents for any number of reasons, naturally must obey their parents on all counts, not just concerning tattoos. If the act of getting a tattoo violates the 4th Commandment, then it is considered mortal sin. (As well as any tattoos that would contravene the 2nd Commandment by using the Lord’s name in vain or contradict any teachings of the Church.)
Insofar as the 5th Commandment concerns, the Catechism of the Catholic Church Article 5 is very clear about how the commandment extends not just to murder but to self-mutilation and self-destructiveness (in addition to suicide, euthanasia, and abortion).
If you want a tattoo for any of these reasons, don’t do it!
I believe that any tattoo or body art that demeans yourself or others, promotes evil or sinfulness, is unchaste, leads others to sinfulness (CCC 2284-2290), or is created with that intention in mind is immoral. Also beware of vanity.
Readings about this topic are numerous, but the three that I find most helpful and would offer for your review are these:
- Father Peter Joseph gives in-depth criteria for evaluating the morality of your decision to get a tattoo. Think of it as a pre-examination of conscious [link].
- Busted Halo had a podcast in April about tattoos and today’s culture [link] starting at 13:45 and reiterates the church’s neutral position.
- On this page, Father Stephen Somerville makes the argument that the indelible and unseen marks of the sacraments are greater than any tattoo.