Catholic Candle note: As our world sinks further into paganism, it is tragic but foreseeable that uninformed Traditional Catholics will adopt the styles and fads of the barbarians around them. Thus, even some persons who consider themselves informed Traditional Catholics, are getting tattoos and consider them trendy and acceptable. The following article warns against the sin of getting a tattoo. Anyone who considers this article to be “out of touch” and excessive, only indicates the extent to which he has already accepted the norms of today’s corrupt society.
Tattooing was (and is) widespread among barbarians and pagans.
See, also, for example, the tattooing among these pagans:
Regarding the pagan Huron tribe: “They practiced tattooing, sometimes covering the whole body with indelible devices.” The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century, Francis Parkman, 1897, Little, Brown and Co., p.20, Introduction.
- 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.12, entry Pima Indians
- 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.9, entry: Lillooet Indians
- 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.9, entry: Mandan Indians
- 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, vol.9, entry: Vicariate Apostolic of Marquesas Islands (concerning the Polynesian Indians)
- Smithsonian Magazine: (regarding the pagan Maori of New Zealand) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tattoos-144038580/
This barbaric and pagan practice is sinful. There are twelve ways to see this truth:
- Wise and virtuous men show us that tattoos are sinful.
- Christendom’s prohibition of tattoos, shows us that they are sinful.
- St. Basil the Great condemns tattoos, showing us that they are sinful.
- Tattoos are sinful because they are bodily mutilations against the Fifth Commandment.
- God made man to be without sin and to be perfect in soul and body; tattoos are sins because they harm that perfection God intended.
- Our bodies belong to God, and tattoos are sins against God’s rights over our bodies.
- Tattoos are a sin of vanity and against the virtue of modesty (regardless of where they are on the body).
- One sign that tattoos are sinful is that society accepted them only as part of a broader acceptance of evil beginning in the 1960s.
- Tattoos are sinful because they are needless, long-term health hazards.
- It is unreasonable and sinful to get a tattoo because people commonly regret doing so.
- Tattoos are sinful because they are against our duty to look and act different from the barbarians around us.
- Tattoos are sinful because they are not Christ-like or Mary-like.
Below, we examine each of these twelve reasons.
1. Wise and virtuous men show us that tattoos are sinful.
One way to see that tattoos are sinful, is to see that old and wise men are against tattooing. Old men who are wise—i.e.,
who put God and virtue first in their lives—tend to know what is good and what is evil, even when they cannot explain the reasons for their moral insights.
Even without the aid of Catholic revelation, reason tells us we should be guided by old and wise men. Thus, the great philosopher Aristotle declares:
We ought to attend to the undemonstrated sayings and opinions of experienced and older people or of people of practical wisdom not less than to demonstrations; for, their experience is, as it were, an eye by which they see rightly.
Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle, Bk.6, ch.11.
The greatest Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, confirms Aristotle’s teaching, in these words:
Prudence is perfected through experience and age and so we should pay attention to the thoughts of old and wise men on matters of conduct, as much as if we have a proof for their position.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. VI, Lect. 9.
Thus, we should follow their lead even if they lack a full explanation for their moral insights.
Such men do not get tattoos themselves and do not approve of other persons getting tattoos. This shows tattooing is a sin. We should listen to old and wise men and should avoid tattoos.
2. Christendom’s prohibition of tattoos, shows us that they are sinful.
We see tattoos are sinful because Christendom prohibited them:
- The founders of Christendom, Catholic missionaries, show us that tattooing is evil, by ending this vice among their converts.
Among many other examples, Smithsonian Magazine made this comment about the pagan savages of New Zealand: “Maori women were  tattooed on their faces, the markings tended to be concentrated around the nose and lips. ... Christian missionaries tried to stop the procedure”. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tattoos-144038580/
A history of tattooing stated: “Christian missionaries from the west attempted to purge tattooing among the Samoans”. A History of Tattooing by Public Broadcasting: http://www.pbs.org/skinstories/history/index.html
- Catholic rulers traditionally forbade tattooing (when and where Catholicism had influence).
These rulers understood that they were fulfilling their duty to guard the morals of their people and make their people virtuous.
One encyclopedia stated: “After the advent of Christianity [i.e., Catholicism], tattooing was forbidden in Europe.” Encyclopedia Brittanica, vol. 21, p. 718, ©1971, article: Tattooing.
One magazine explained that, in the Roman Empire after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine: with “the emergence of Christianity, ... tattoos were felt to ‘disfigure that made in God's image’ [viz., man] and so were banned by the Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-373).” Quoted from Smithsonian Magazine, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tattoos-144038580/
As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, “it belongs ... [to] the function of the ruler to provide the good life for the many, in terms of what will obtain for them the beatitude of heaven”. On Kingship, Bk. 1, c.15.
If we were in a truly Catholic society, tattooing would be illegal. We should not do now while living among the godless, what we would not do in a truly Catholic society.
3. St. Basil the Great condemns tattoos, showing us that they are sinful.
St. Basil the Great, a Doctor and Father of the Catholic Church, condemns tattoos and warns Catholics:
No man shall
let his hair grow long or tattoo himself
as do the heathen, those apostles of Satan who make themselves despicable by indulging in lewd and lascivious thoughts. Do not associate with those who mark themselves with thorns and needles so that their blood flows to the earth. Guard yourselves against all unchaste persons, so that it cannot be said of you that in your hearts you lie with harlots.
St. Basil’s warning shows tattoos are a sin.
4. Tattoos are sinful because they are bodily mutilations against the Fifth Commandment.
If one of our limbs is gangrenous, we amputate it to save our life and the rest of our body. However, except in this type of situation, mutilation is a sin condemned both by right reason and also by the Catholic Church.
Pope Pius XI condemned sterilization because it was an instance of the more general sin of mutilation of our bodies. Here are his words:
Christian doctrine establishes, and the light of human reason makes it most clear, that private individuals have no other power over the members of their bodies than that which pertains to their natural ends; and they are not free to destroy or mutilate their members, or in any other way render themselves unfit for their natural functions, except when no other provision can be made for the good of the whole body.
Encyclical On Christian Marriage, §71 (Emphasis added.)
A tattoo is not obtained to save one’s life or prevent greater harm to his person. It is permanent or semi-permanent discoloration of the skin and thus, is a mutilation and is sinful.
The definition of “mutilation” includes tattooing:
Body modifications and mutilations, intentional permanent or semi-permanent alterations of the living human body for reasons such as ritual, folk medicine, aesthetics, or corporal punishment. In general, voluntary changes are considered to be modifications, and involuntary changes are considered mutilations. Common methods that have been used are incision, perforation, complete or partial removal, cautery, abrasion, adhesion, insertion of foreign bodies or materials, compression, distention, diversion, enlargement, and staining.
Britannica is liberal and so exalts human autonomy above the rights of God. Thus, Catholics know Britannica’s definition is wrong to the extent that a person’s consent (voluntariness) does not really change mutilation into an acceptable “bodily modification” (to use Britannica’s phrase) any more than choosing to kill oneself makes the murder acceptable.
Catholics know that our bodies belong to God. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20. As Pope Pius XI explains, man has no right to voluntarily mutilate his members. On Christian Marriage, §71. Pope Pius XI taught this in the context of voluntary sterilization but he invokes the more general prohibition against voluntary mutilation. Just as it is sinful to take our own life, it is sinful to voluntarily mutilate ourselves.
5. God made man to be without sin and to be perfect in soul and body; tattoos are sins because they harm that perfection.
God made all creation in the best way for creation to be. There are no flaws in creation as God made it and it cannot be improved. He made creation “very good”. Genesis, 1:31.
God made man to be without sin and to be perfect in soul and body. He made man to have flawless skin and made man to lack nothing he should have.
St. Augustine praised the way God made the perfect beauty of the human body. Here are his words:
[I]n the human body, if we praise the eyes alone, if the nose alone, if the cheeks alone, or the head alone, or the hand alone, or the feet alone, and the rest, if we praise them as beautiful singly and alone, how much more the beauty of the whole body, to which all these members, which singly are beautiful, unites beauty in one whole!
St. Augustine, Concerning Genesis, against the Manicheans, Bk 1, ch.21.
Pope Pius XII declared that “the human body is God’s masterpiece in the visible world”. Address to the Latin Union of High Fashion, November 8, 1957 (note: this quote is part of a longer statement and the word “which” is omitted for clarity, after the word “body”).
This is why Catholics and Catholic rulers put an end to tattooing because it disfigured man as God made him. For example, as stated in Smithsonian Magazine: With “the emergence of Christianity, ... tattoos were felt to ‘disfigure that made in God’s image’ [viz., man] and so were banned by the Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-373).” Read the entire article at this link: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tattoos-144038580/
Man ruined himself through original sin. God intended man to be without original sin and without any flaws in his skin or anywhere else. At the Resurrection of the Body, the saints will all have glorified bodies free from all defects and blemishes, except those glorious scars which show what we suffered for Christ, e.g., during martyrdom (and these scars will be beautified).
During this life, man has defects in his body because of original sin. It is sometimes not a sin to take reasonable steps to cover up/conceal defects caused by original sin, in order to restore our appearance closer to the perfect way we would have appeared without original sin. For example, a young woman with a very visible, hairy mole on her face, might be entitled to take reasonable measures to conceal the defect and restore her face more to how it would have looked without original sin, by removing the hair on the mole, and by applying a cosmetic to blend the color of the mole with the color of the rest of her face.
When someone hides an imperfection of his body, this is an attempt to conceal an effect of original sin and make his appearance more like the way God originally intended humans to look, viz., the way God created man (without defects) before original sin.
This is different than a tattoo, which alters the appearance of the body not to cover up a blemish, but to make man different than what God intended. Such tattoos are blasphemous and prideful because they intend to “improve upon” and to “perfect” the perfect work of God. This is a sin.
6. Our bodies belong to God, and tattoos are sins against God’s rights over our bodies.
Our bodies are not our own. They belong to God and are temples of the Holy Ghost. We may not do whatever we want with them. We are admonished not to defile them. As St. Paul declared:
Know you not, that your members are the temple of the Holy Ghost, who is in you, whom you have from God; and you are not your own? For you are bought with a great price. Glorify and bear God in your body.
1 Corinthians 6:19-20.
When we are given custody of someone else’s property, we must preserve it as best we can in its original condition. Thus, if our neighbor entrusts his house to us while he is on a journey, it would be unjust (and a sin) to paint his house a different color or even paint on it a replica of a Michelangelo masterpiece, because the house does not belong to us.
Your body is God’s property and a tattoo vandalizes His property with graffiti. It is unjust (and is a sin) for you to tattoo your body, which belongs to God, no matter how beautiful you think the tattoo is. There is no beauty-and-tastefulness
exception to justice, which would allow you to paint your neighbor’s house or tattoo your skin with anything, even a reproduction of a “beautiful Michelangelo masterpiece”.
Obviously, a tattoo which glorifies demons and demonic things is an additional sin for that reason.
7. Tattoos are sins of vanity and against the virtue of modesty (regardless of where they are on the body).
A tattoo can be against the 6th and 9th Commandments when it contains words, symbols or pictures which are contrary to purity.
A tattoo can be against the 6th and 9th Commandments when it is located on part of your body which should not be seen (even by the tattoo shop personnel).
But modesty is more than properly covering one’s body and even without those sorts of impurity, tattoos are immodest. Modesty is a virtue requiring moderation in how we look, act and display ourselves.
Here is how St. Thomas Aquinas explained this truth:
Modesty, which is reckoned a part of temperance, moderates man’s outward life—for instance, in his deportment, dress or the like.
Summa, IIa IIae, Q.120, a.2, ad 3.11
This is why St. Paul instructed Catholics: “Let your modesty be known to all men. The Lord is nigh.” Philippians,
The purpose of modesty is to avoid drawing undue attention to oneself. Tattoos are inherently attempts to get undue attention by permanently discoloring our skin to get attention we would not receive if we looked more like God created man to look. Thus, all tattoos are sins against modesty.
8. One sign that tattoos are sinful is that society accepted them only as part of a broader acceptance of evil beginning in the 1960s.
A further sign that tattoos are evil, is that they were accepted only by Western society’s decadent freaks and fringe groups until about the 1960s. But in the post-Christian Western World of the 1960s, tattoos began to be popular and “acceptable” along with decadence in many other forms, including hippy promiscuity, drug use, and rock music.
Before then, society considered tattoos to be “unsavory”.
This is the word used to characterize society’s view of tattoos, in this history of tattoos: World Atlas of Tattoos, by Anna Felicity Friedman, Yale University Press, p.22.
Tattoos were part of the “1960s counterculture” which corrupted society.
As one history of tattoos explained, tattoos became “more socially acceptable, less stigmatized, and popularized” by “the countercultural and anti-war movements of the 1960s, [and] also by the self-help and New Age movements of the 1970s and 1980s.”
The Tattoo Project, edited by Deborah Davidson, published by Canadian Scholars Press, Ontario, © 2016, p.25.
Because tattoos only became “acceptable” when society became more wicked, this shows that tattoos are evil and are a sin.
9. Tattoos are sinful because they are needless, longterm health hazards.
There are no U.S. FDA-approved tattoo inks.
Sometimes, tattoo inks contain pigments used in printer toner or car paint. Id.
Sometimes, tattoo inks are contaminated with bacteria or mold. Id.
The FDA states that there is no sure way of knowing if tattoo inks will cause infection or disease. Id.
Tattoos can cause cancer-type symptoms even beginning many years afterwards. Id. Infections can first arise many years after receiving a tattoo and cause problems which require surgery. Id.
It is a sin against the Fifth Commandment for a person to expose himself unnecessarily to infection and disease. Thus, tattoos are also sinful for this reason.
10. It is unreasonable and sinful to get a tattoo because people commonly regret doing so.
A tattoo is appropriately called a permanent souvenir of a passing whim. About one-third of people regret the tattoo they have obtained.
Of course, everyone who gets a tattoo thinks he will be among those who don’t regret it. But one out of three of these people are wrong and do regret it.
Tattoos can only be imperfectly removed. The removal process can cause permanent scars. Id.
Removal of a tattoo is painful, time consuming and costs about ten to twenty times more than the cost of obtaining the tattoo. Id.
It is unreasonable for a person to do something on a whim, which has lasting consequences, when there is such a high chance he will regret it later. It is a sin to act unreasonably
St. Thomas Aquinas explains this truth as follows:
Now in human actions, good and evil are predicated in reference to the reason; because as Dionysius says (Div. Nom. iv), “the good of man is to be in accordance with reason,” and evil is “to be against reason.”
Summa, Ia IIae, Q.18, a.5, respondeo.
and thus obtaining a tattoo is a sin.
11. Tattoos are sinful because they are against our duty to look and act different from the barbarians around us.
Tattoos, piercing, and such things are pagan and there is now a new rise of paganism bringing a corresponding rise in tattoos, piercings, etc.
Any Catholic is on the wrong path if people cannot tell he is a Traditional Catholic by how he looks and acts. His appearance and actions must tell barbarians that he is not “one of them”. We must be a sign of contradiction to the world and this must be evident in the way we look and act.
For this reason, God forbade the Israelites to be like the neighboring pagan tribes—including God forbidding their getting tattoos:
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 (emphasis added).
As quoted above, St. Basil the Great commanded that we should not look like the barbarians around us. He teaches us not only to avoid all tattoos, but also all piercing and that men should not grow their hair long:
No man shall let his hair grow long
or tattoo himself
as do the heathen, those apostles of Satan who make themselves despicable by indulging in lewd and lascivious thoughts. Do not associate with those who mark themselves with thorns and needles
so that their blood flows to the earth. Guard yourselves against all unchaste persons, so that it cannot be said of you that in your hearts you lie with harlots.
When we don’t look like the barbarians around us, it helps us to avoid acting like them. It reminds us that we don’t “fit in”. Tattoos are against this Catholic duty and are sinful.
One might make the superficial objection that in order to look different from the barbarians around us, we should obtain “Catholic” tattoos, such as a cross or picture of the Blessed Virgin Mary. However, it is un-Catholic (and is a sin) to use a pagan method to profess the Catholic Faith. A Catholic may profess his Faith by wearing a religious medal, crucifix or other Catholic emblem.
12. Tattoos are sinful because they are not Christ-like or Mary-like.
- We should imitate the saints because they are mirrors of Christ and His mother. Saints would not get tattoos.
- We should always live in the presence of Our Lord and His Blessed Mother. We would be embarrassed to have them see us obtaining or displaying a tattoo.
- We should live our life for Christ. Obtaining a tattoo is contrary to that spirit of detachment and to a Christ-centered life.
- All voluntary human acts (i.e., all things we make a decision to do) are either a sin or a virtuous deed.
Obviously, obtaining a tattoo is not a virtuous deed. Therefore, it is a sin.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains this truth as follows:
[E]very human action that proceeds from deliberate reason, if it be considered in the individual, must be good or bad. If, however, it does not proceed from deliberate reason, but from some act of the imagination, as when a man strokes his beard, or moves his hand or foot; such an action, properly speaking, is not moral or human; since this depends on the reason. Hence it will be indifferent, as standing apart from the genus of moral actions.
Summa, Ia IIae, Q.18, a.9, respondeo.
- We should always act in the way that at our Judgment we would want to have acted. At our Judgment we will not want to have obtained a tattoo. Therefore, we should not obtain one.
- Be displaying a tattoo, we are not a good representative of the Traditional Catholic Religion.
- If we put all people into one of two groups—either those who condone tattoos and those who don’t—in which group are most (or all) of the friends of Christ and His Mother? Shouldn’t you think like the friends of Christ and His Mother so you can be in that group?
Are Tattoos always a mortal sin?
A mortal sin is a grave (or large) sin. It seems obvious that large tattoos would thus be mortal sins. However, is it possible for even a very tiny, hardly noticeable tattoo to be a mortal sin?
All tattoos are permanent or semi-permanent. Thus, measured by their long (i.e., large) duration, all tattoos would be regarded as large sins, i.e., mortal sins.
However, even if we suppose a very tiny, hardly noticeable tattoo would be a venial sin, then getting a tattoo is still worse than dying because every sin is worse than dying. Here is how Cardinal Newman stated this truth:
The Catholic Church holds it better for the sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die of starvation in extremest agony, as far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.
Apologia Vita Sua, by John Henry Cardinal Newman, Image Books, Doubleday, Garden City, New York, © 1956, p.324.
Thus, although the duration of all tattoos indicates that they are always mortal sins, even if (hypothetically) very tiny, hardly noticeable ones were venial sins, they would still be worse than death.
A person with a tattoo must conceal it for life
Hopefully, any reader with a tattoo will now recognize that what he did was sinful.
When we see someone with a tattoo, we know he has objectively committed a sin, but, as with all sins, we should not conclude that we know his interior, subjective culpability. Rash judgment: concluding the pope is a formal heretic That conclusion would be a sin of rash judgment on our part. Id.
During the Middle Ages, some men made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and, while there, got themselves tattooed to prove they had made the entire journey, with all of its hardships and dangers. Because tattooing was mostly unavailable in Catholic Europe, such a tattoo showed they completed their journey and so established their “bragging rights” when they got back home. (Tattooing was available in Jerusalem and in some other parts of the Middle East, due to the many pagan and other influences in those places.) Although those men objectively sinned by getting tattooed, we do not judge their subjective, interior culpability.
If a man stamps on a crucifix or spends a night in drunken carousing and then posts pictures of the sinful conduct on Facebook, even after he confesses the sinful actions the social media posts are a continual scandal, i.e., bad example. It is his duty to remove those pictures which might otherwise lead others to imitate him.
Likewise, even after a man confesses obtaining a tattoo, he must do what he can to conceal the tattoo ever afterwards, so that he doesn’t lead others to follow his sinful example.
Both those who have tattoos and those who don’t, are more likely to consider tattoos acceptable if they see others have them and display them. By considering tattoos more acceptable, people are more likely to themselves obtain a tattoo (or an additional tattoo).
Therefore, since tattoos are sinful, a person with a tattoo has a continual obligation to take all reasonable steps to conceal the tattoo so as not to give scandal by bad example:
- Among people he knows, a person must conceal the tattoo so that he doesn’t lead them to think tattoos are acceptable to reasonable men and to Catholics;
- Among members of the general public, he must conceal the tattoo to avoid contributing to the impression of the public at large that tattoos are “normal” and good;
- Especially among weak-minded and impressionable people, he must conceal the tattoo because such people are prone to follow fads; and
- Even among those who themselves have tattoos, he must conceal the tattoo to avoid confirming them in their own bad conduct.
Sin does not cease to be sin because everyone is doing it.
One might make the superficial objection that tattoos are no longer a scandal because “everyone has them”. But sin does not cease to be sin because it becomes common.
Society can deteriorate and people can become accustomed to sins. But those sins still offend God. When a person (or society generally) “sees nothing wrong with” sin, this condemns him (or society) but does not make sin cease to be sin. To “see nothing wrong with” a sin merely shows that a man’s conscience is callous and he has become spiritually blind.
Concerning the idea that sin ceases to be sin when everyone is “used to it”, Pope Pius XII called this the most insidious of sophisms. Here are his words (in the context of people falsely “justifying” immodesty using this excuse):
The most insidious of sophisms, which are usually repeated to justify immodesty, seems to be the same everywhere. One of these resurrects the ancient saying “let there be no argument about things we are accustomed to”, in order to brand as old fashioned the rebellion of honest people against fashions which are too bold...
Pope Pius XII, Address to the Latin Union of High Fashion, November 8, 1957.
Tattoos are always sinful. Their permanence indicates they are always mortal sins. But even if a very tiny, hardly noticeable tattoo were a venial sin, such a tattoo is still worse than death. A person has the permanent duty to take reasonable steps to conceal any tattoo he has.