Your sister is correct. The Church has no official teaching on tattoos. As she stated, the most oft-cited argument against tattooing is based on the following OT verse: “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:28) which is not binding on Christians.
“Old Testament prohibitions regarding tattoos are considered ceremonial laws and thus are not binding on Christians,” explains Father Charles Grondin for Catholic Answers.
“There is nothing inherently immoral about a Catholic having a tattoo or a piercing. What would make those things immoral would be its content/message/purpose. What message am I trying to send through this action? What is my motivation? It is essentially viewed as a morally neutral act whose morality depends upon content, context, and circumstances. Prudential judgment is needed.”
Even though the Church doesn’t have an official teaching on this subject, she does offer help in discerning whether getting a tattoo could be sinful in certain situations.
For instance, the fifth commandment – “You shall not kill” – concerns not just respect for human life, but for bodily health and integrity as well. According to this FDA advisory, there has been an increase in the number of reports of people developing infections from contaminated tattoo inks, as well as having bad reactions to the inks themselves. Allergic reactions to any of the ingredients in the ink can cause problems ranging from rashes and redness in the area of the tattoo to high fever, shaking, chills and sweats leading to hospitalization and even surgery. This is certainly something to consider before undergoing tattooing and some piercings because of the many serious health risks associated with these practices.
We should also be careful not to adopt a kind of dualistic view of the body which occurs when we consider our bodies a “possession” rather than a part of who we are.
“This means we think of our bodies not as ourselves, not as persons, but somehow as our possessions, as things we use to make us happy: ‘I can do with my body anything I want!’ We say this the way we might say this is my house, or my car or my goldfish. If our house no longer suits, we renovate it. If our car no longer pleases, we buy a new one. If caring for our goldfish becomes a nuisance, we destroy it,” writes E. Christian Brugger for the National Catholic Register. “…[T]o the extent that people see getting a tattoo as a kind of artistic self-expression, it seems they are considering their bodies like canvases on which to express themselves. If this is the case, they are thinking dualistically.”
Obviously, this way of thinking can lead to sinful behaviors, such as considering persons whose bodies have no consciousness (unborn, those in a coma) as being expendable or viewing the body as an object such as in the viewing of pornography.
Ultimately, our bodies are made in the image and likeness of God and should be treated that way.
“It might be helpful to ask ourselves if we’re thinking of getting a tattoo: Would it be appropriate for me to paint this permanently on the high altar at St. Peter’s Basilica?” Brugger asks. “If we have doubts, then we might pause before painting it on ourselves, since our bodies are far and away more sacred than any church altar.”
A person’s intention in getting a tattoo also has great bearing on whether or not it’s sinful. For instance, if one has an uncharitable image tattooed onto the body for the purpose of offending someone, or an impure image that could lead others to sin, this is also off-limits.
The most dangerous kind of tattoos are those of demonic images. In one case that was brought to the attention of this ministry, a woman who had been involved in the occult got several tattoos that had occult meaning to her at the time. However, when she returned to the Church she no longer wanted them but couldn’t afford to have them removed.
Because of the seriousness of occult activity she was involved in, this question was referred to Father Edmund Sylvia, C.S.C., who was serving as our spiritual advisor at the time. He said the optimal solution would be complete removal of the tattoos but if that’s no possible, the symbols should be covered up because they could be a source of scandal to others.
Assuming that the woman performed the necessary confession and formal renunciation of her involvements in the occult, Father recommended that she also seek deliverance prayers and the formal renunciation and breaking of all covenants. This is very important “to prevent harassment and serious spiritual attack,” he says. “As part of deliverance prayers, there should also be a ‘sealing’ of these tattoos, much like the formal closing of ‘portals'” (which are doorways to the occult/spirits).
In another case, Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, chief exorcist for the Archdiocese of Washington, encountered a young man who was smoking marijuana and delving into demonology. He had the name of a demon he called Astaroth tattooed on his chest. Thanks to the misrepresentation of demons and the occult in the popular culture, the young man erroneously believed that getting the tattoo would “make me a better person.”
“Unfortunately, the young man with the demon tattoo was becoming increasingly dark, resentful, and sullen. He had no intention of stopping marijuana smoking and was searching for a new age ‘Church’ that promoted it. He didn't realize that tattooing a demon's likeness on one's body was tantamount to branding oneself to his service.”
The young man resisted the conversion of his life, which would be necessary to set him free from the bondage he had freely entered into with Astaroth; therefore, Msgr. Rossetti was unable to help him.
However, he did recommend that anyone who has such a occult themed tattoo on their body could “decommission” it by sincerely reciting a prayer found on the Catholic Exorcism app entitled, "Decommissioning Tattoos":
In the Holy Name of Jesus, through the authority of the natural law and my baptism, through the merits of the Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus and His sending of the Holy Spirit, I decommission this tattoo and break and sever each and every connection between this tattoo and the Evil One and his associates. I ask you, Heavenly Father, to drive out any demons that may have attached themselves to me as a result of this tattoo and that you purify the ink that was used to make it. I ask that you sever each and every connection between the image and each and every demon who may have attached themselves to me as a result of the tattoo. In the name of Jesus, I nullify each and every claim or rights demons may assert to have over me due to any magical images, symbols or scripts incorporated into the tattoo. And trough the sign of the cross, (make sign of the cross over the tattoo. Use exorcised oil if possible), I consecrate myself to our Lord Jesus Christ through the Immaculate hands of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Keeping the above guidelines in mind can help the discerning Catholic come to the right decision about whether to tattoo - or not to tattoo.
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