September 2019 Print

Questions and Answers

by Fr. Juan-Carlos Iscara, SSPX

Since new technologies claim to make tattoo removal easy, cheap, and painless, can I get one now?

Tattooing is not necessarily sinful in itself, but neither is it morally indifferent. In any case, the ease of removal is not the fundamental condition for determining its morality.

The “morality” of an action is the relation that such action has with the moral law, which is, in the end, the law of God. It can be determined by considering the object of the action (what is done), together with the end intended by the person who performs that action and the circumstances in which it is performed, and how those three factors relate to the moral norm, either by being in conformity with it (then, the action is morally good) or by contradicting it (the action is morally evil, a sin).

First, then, the object: what is a tattoo? A tattoo is “a permanent mark or design made on the body by the introduction of pigment through ruptures in the skin” (Encyclopedia Britannica). At different times in history, it has been practiced throughout the world for diverse reasons. It practically vanished in the Western world, until rediscovered in later centuries by the contact with American Indians and Polynesians and even then used almost exclusively by the less reputable, marginal parts of society. Now, since the 1990s, tattoos seem to have become fashionable again and even “respectable.”

Although in the Bible (Lev. 19:28) tattoos were forbidden by God, it was because they signified the profession of Canaanite superstitions and pagan cults. In itself, insofar as it is a marking on the body, a tattoo is not sinful, as it does not violate a command from God, nor a human good or a Church teaching.

But it may become sinful on account of its circumstances—for example, the cost of tattooing may be excessive in relation to one’s means, or leave disfiguring scars if later removed...or the image tattooed may be immoral or obscene, even blasphemous or satanic...or it may cover much of the body, defacing it, or it may be on an immodest part of the body…

In turn, this brings us to consider the most important factor in evaluating the morality of a tattoo—the reason why we get one.

In some cultures, it has been done to provide magical protection against some evil, or to identify the wearer’s rank, status or membership in a group, or even simply as bodily ornament. The ancient Romans tattooed criminals and slaves, and in the 19th century, released U.S. convicts and British army deserters were identified by tattoos. Coptic Christians tattooed crosses on their forehands or fingers as a profession of faith against the encroaching Islam. Some medieval pilgrims did the same, as testimony of having accomplished their journeys of devotion.

But today’s apparent ubiquity of tattoos seems to spring from very diverse, and unfortunately base, motives—a mindless following of fads and fashions...immaturity and imprudence...a spirit of disobedience, of rebellion against authorities or social conventions...out of peer pressure, the wish not to be left out of whatever everybody else is doing...or perhaps out of boredom or thrill-seeking...or to attract attention...out of vanity and ostentation, narcissism, a spirit of exhibitionism that may even betray a deeper psychological disturbance...All these can be easily sinful in different degrees.

Moreover, we have a duty to respect and care for our body, as it has been entrusted to us by God and made by grace a temple of the Most High: 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 (I Cor. 6:19-20). Any unnecessary, unjustified alteration or defacing of the body is—also with different degrees of culpability—a violation of that trust, of our duty of stewardship.

Finally, tattooing is a way of identifying a person with a culture and its values. Yielding to the modern fad of tattoos is a way of accommodating ourselves to the life of the world, to an anti-Christian culture and to a way of life lacking in Christian values. As St. Paul said: Be not conformed to this world; but be reformed in the newness of your mind, that you may prove what is the good, and the acceptable, and the perfect will of God (Rom. 12:2). As Catholics, we are in the world but we do not belong to it, we must not imitate it. Our Lord alone must be the light and guide of our actions, not the worldly fashions or mentality.

Does God listen to the prayers of a sinner?

Catholic doctrine teaches us that one of the first conditions for our prayers to be efficacious—that is, to obtain what they ask for—is that the person who prays must be in the state of grace.

But, on the other hand, the Gospels tell us of sinners whose prayers were most assuredly heard by God—the Good Thief on Calvary, Mary Magdalen, Zacchaeus, the publican of the parable… In fact, throughout Scripture it is the sinner who is more insistently encouraged to pray, because he is the most miserable before God and can only appeal to God’s mercy rather than to any merit of his own.

Therefore, yes, we can be certain that God does listen to such prayers—but, as we also read in the Gospels, only if that prayer is accompanied by his desire and intention of repentance.

God does not listen to the sinner when he prays for something as a sinner, i.e., in accordance with a sinful desire, remaining obstinate and quite content in his sinful state, unwilling to part with his sin or its occasions (cf. Summa, II-II, q. 83, a. 16). The sinner who, after offending God, persists in remaining in the state of enmity with Him, will not be asking for those goods that lead to forgiveness and back to friendship with God. Still, sometimes he may perhaps obtain what he has asked for, but the favorable answer is not mercy or reward, but punishment. St. Augustine tells us that there are things that God, in His mercy, refuses us, but that He grants in His wrath... (Tract. John 73) tansitory goods into which he has put his heart and asks God for forgiveness. The prayer of the sinner, to be heard, must arise from the acknowledgment of his own misery, which will prompt him to ask for deliverance from his sinful state, that is, to be brought out of his sin.

The sinner will be heard if he beseeches for himself, piously and perseveringly, those things that are necessary for his own salvation. He will be heard if he asks for the strength and courage to love the true good. He will be heard if he accepts the sacrifices that will be to make his repentance efficacious. He may even ask for temporal goods, as long as they pose no obstacle, or are conducive, to the attainment of his conversion and eternal salvation.

And God will grant what such prayer asks, not out of justice, because the sinner does not merit to be heard, but out of pure mercy…

I know that euthanasia is a sin and I will never do it, but is there anything wrong with wanting to “die with dignity”?

Before answering, we must clarify what we understand by “dignity.”

Dignity is the superiority acquired by a being (man, in this instance), on account of its perfections and fullness, relative to other beings of the same kind (i.e. other men) or to beings of other kinds (i.e. dogs, birds, trees, etc.).

But a distinction must be made between two kinds of dignity found in man.

The first, man’s radical dignity, arises from his rational nature, from having intellect and free will, a perfection that does not exist in beings other than men (and angels, of course).

The second, man’s operative dignity, arises from his own actions, because man’s faculties, to be perfect, must attain their proper objects—that is, the intelligence must apprehend what is true and the will must move freely towards what is good.

In consequence, to follow what is an error or falsehood, or to do what is a sin is not a manifestation of man’s perfection and excellence (i.e., of his dignity) but quite the contrary. In fact, such actions detract from, and even annihilate, man’s dignity.

Now, what do we mean when we say that we want to “die with dignity”?

In today’s increasingly un-Christian world, it usually means to die without having to suffer the pains and humiliations that weakness and illness will bring upon us at the end of our lives. It may also mean to die while still preserving the quality of life that we judge worthwhile, or perhaps to die while still preserving the independence that we cherish… In practice, it means that we are claiming the right to end our lives on our own terms, that is, to take our lives in our own hands and terminate them when and as we choose… Such a supposed “right”—which, if exercised, it is suicide, a sin—does not preserve our dignity, but destroys it.

The Christian “death with dignity” is to reach the end of our lives in perfect submission to God’s will—that is, to accept that death will come to us in the time and manner that God has decreed, without interfering in His sovereign dominion over life and death.