Can Christians have tattoos? Does the Bible forbid us from getting them? Are they a form of bodily mutilation? Jimmy Akin answers all these questions on Catholic Answers Live.
Caller: What are the Church’s teachings around tattoos? I’ve gotten a lot of mixed messages on whether it’s offensive to God or not.
Jimmy Akin: One of the things you have to understand about Leviticus, and the Mosaic law in general, is that it deals with more than just moral commands. Every group of people has certain customs and certain practices that they perform or that are considered taboo in their culture, and God chose to endorse and to mandate certain customs for the Israelites in order to make them a cohesive people that would stick together and resist the paganism that they were surrounded by. He wanted them to be distinct from the pagans around them so that they wouldn’t adopt pagan beliefs like worshiping Ba’al and things like that.
And so as a result, God gave them things that are not moral commands—meaning they’re not required by morality itself, but that are ceremonial; and an example would be kosher diets. You know, “Don’t eat pig flesh, don’t eat pork” would be an example. Well there’s nothing wrong with eating pork, it’s not morally wrong to do that, but it helped insulate the Israelites from their pagan pork-eating neighbors.
And in the same way, if you look at the passage in Leviticus that discusses making marks on your bodies, which could be understood as tattoos—but also could be understood as deliberate scarring, because that is another practice that some cultures engage in, they’ll put decorative scars on their bodies—it doesn’t mean injecting the skin with ink, but just scarring the skin. Even if we accept that this verse is talking about tattoos rather than scarring, it’s clear that this is meant to be another cultural insulator from the pagans, because it also goes on to say “and don’t make marks on your body for the dead,” which was a cultural practice, a religious practice, you know, a part of ancestor-worship in some of these cultures. And so this command here is ceremonial in nature. It doesn’t fall directly out of morality.
In terms of Church teaching: the Church does not have a teaching on tattoos, and anyone who says they do, I would say “Show me the text,” because there isn’t one. The Church doesn’t have a teaching on this. As a result, you have to fall back on the principles of Catholic moral theology, which are different than Church teaching. A teaching is something the Church officially mandates; theology is a matter of opinion. And in terms of Catholic moral theology, it does not seem to me that there is a basis for saying that tattoos are absolutely prohibited.
Essentially, tattoos are a form of bodily decoration. But bodily decoration is just fine. Women can wear makeup, people can coiffe their hair a certain way, people can wear jewelry, there’s all kinds of different bodily decorations that are just fine, and essentially tattoos are kind of permanent makeup. Because what you do with makeup is you take pigment and you apply it to the outside of the skin, but in the case of tattoos—which are even sometimes called permanent makeup—you take the pigment and you put it inside the skin so it doesn’t just wash off, and there’s nothing in principle wrong with that.
Now some people have tried to mount an argument here saying that’s bodily mutilation, but it doesn’t seem to fit the definition of bodily mutilation, because if you’re mutilating your body that’s not the same thing as making any alteration in your body. I mean you can, for example, cut your fingernails, you can cut your hair, you can shave your face or your legs or whatever it may be, you can have surgery, and all of those involve bodily alteration, but they’re not mutilation because they don’t interfere with the function of your body. And similarly, simply putting some ink or pigment into your skin does not interfere with the function of your body or the function of your skin, at least not if it’s done right. And so I don’t see a basis for prohibiting tattoos.
Having said that, you want to be careful, you want to be prudent before you get one, because you’re going to be stuck with it or have some extensive tattoo removal procedures if you have buyer’s remorse. You also would want to make sure that whatever the tattoo is is consistent with the Christian faith, but provided those things are met I don’t see a basis for saying they’re absolutely prohibited.