Interview with Fr. Michael Rodríguez

May Catholics Get Tattoos?

Catholic Apologetics #40

“You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh, for the dead, neither shall you make in yourselves any figures or marks: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28).

The above text from Scripture is taken from the Douay-Rheims Bible.  Some Scripture translations explicitly refer to tattoos.  Let’s take the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (an English translation of the Bible first published in 1966), for instance, for the same line from Leviticus: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD.”

It is true that the above prohibition against tattoos was written in the context of the Old Testament Law (the Mosaic Law). While this Law is no longer in force by reason of Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross, we do have to keep in mind the words of the Redeemer Himself: “Do not think that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets.  I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).

While the Old Testament laws which went beyond the Natural Law (e.g. prohibiting certain foods, et cetera) are no longer in force, they served an important purpose in their time, until their fulfillment in the Law of Christ.  Christ came to perfect the Law.  He abolished divorce that was allowed under the Law of Moses in order to perfect the laws of Matrimony (cf. Matthew 19:8).  Christ also showed us in driving the swine off the cliff that the prohibition on pork was symbolic of the prohibition against sin. 

And ultimately these laws were all enacted to make the People of God, the Israelites, a holy people set apart from the other nations.  If they were God’s holy people and a special race set aside, then they had to act differently than the other (pagan) races that were in the ancient world.  Therein lies one of the chief reasons why there were laws and why we have laws – to keep us as a special people united to God and separate from those who are not of God.

Thus while we are not obliged to observe this prohibition against tattoos by virtue of the Mosaic Law, tattoos remain offensive and Catholics must refrain from getting them. Why?  Just as the Old Law set aside the People of God for holy things, so too we must set ourselves aside and refrain from certain actions. In fact, getting a tattoo is a violation of the Fifth Commandment (i.e., “Have I mutilated my body unnecessarily in any way?”)

What makes tattoos wrong? 

In the New Testament we have the revelation of the Son of God and have received the fruits of His redemptive and efficacious Sacrifice on the Cross.  On Pentecost the Church received the Holy Ghost, Whom Christ sent as His Advocate; and we who have been baptized and confirmed have received within us the Gifts of the Holy Ghost.  In this way, we are truly Temples of the Holy Ghost (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  As such, we must treat our bodies with reverence.  We are not to deface or defile our bodies, as do the pagans and those who are not of God. 

 “Know you not, that your (bodily) members are the temple of the Holy Ghost, Who is in you, Whom you have from God, and you are not your own (property)?  For you are bought with a great price.  Glorify and bear God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

In a 2006 online article, Fr. Stephen Somerville addressed many of the above points in his own words.  His conclusion is worth repeating here:

“Is, then, the mark of tattooing lawful for the Catholic?  Not wishing to exaggerate what may be a small matter, I judge that I speak with the mind of the Church when I say that tattooing is at least unseemly for a Catholic. It surely could weaken faith in Christ for one to place a non-Christ permanent mark on his body.  Our body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, says St. Paul.  Let that temple be preserved from unworthy marks.”


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