“I think the question to understand why a tattoo is wrong, is: Why do I want to get a tattoo? Why do I want to spend this money and to some extent risk my health? My body has been wonderfully created by God (Psalm 139) and it does not need my additional words. It already speaks,” he said.
However, in some parts of the world, there are deeply rooted traditions of Christian tattoos. Some Coptic Christian churches require that Christians must have a tattoo of a cross on their arm in order to be admitted into their churches.
One Coptic Christian family has been tattooing pilgrims to the Holy Land with crosses and other religious symbols as a token of their visit for more than 700 years.
Seeing a priest or a religious sister or brother with tattoos may become a more common occurrence as well, because according to a 2015 Harris Poll, a whopping 47% of millennials reported that they have at least one tattoo.
Br. MJ Groark O.F.M. Cap., is one of those millennials, and is “heavily tattooed.”
“As a millennial (and soon to be priest), I can tell you that my tattoos have been generally met with overwhelming generosity. I have a heck of a conversion story, and these are part of it,” he told CNA.
“I can tell you that God is calling many men and women from this generation into ministry, and a whole bunch of us have tattoos. It's part of our generation's way of expressing our lives, and increasingly, our spiritual beliefs,” he said.
Groark said that considering what he learned in his moral theology training, he thinks the morality of a tattoo lies in its meaning.
“...the human person is created imago Dei (in the image of God). We are indeed temples of the Holy Spirit. And like the temples of old, and the temples we continue to worship at, we are somehow lured by the Catholic imagination to decorate and to magnify the beauty of our spaces,” he said.
“As long as a tattoo points towards the true, the good, and the beautiful, I'm okay with it. If it does not, then there would be a question of the morality.”
Father Ambrose Dobrozsi is another tattooed millennial priest in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Ohio. Dobrozsi told CNA that he did not think tattoos could not be considered sacramentals in the strict, proper sense of the word.
“Sacramentals, used well, keep us close to the grace of Christ given to us in the seven sacraments, and receive their graces by the authority that Christ gives his bride, the Church, when she asks for his help. When the Church asks Christ for graces, He never refuses his bride,” he said.
“This means that sacramentals only work when they are done according to the rules of the Church. If we want to ask Christ for these graces, we need to make sure we do so authentically as the Church, obediently accepting the rules she sets down. It's clear in Canon Law that the Apostolic See alone has the authority to establish sacramentals and define the criteria for their use [c. 1167],” Dobrozsi said.
However, he added, it is possible that tattoos could be “sacramentals” in a broader sense of the word.
“A permanent image, engraved on the skin, could certainly serve as a constant, physical reminder of our new life in Christ. The image of a rosary, a cross, or other sacramental on our skin could lead us frequently to pray, to desire the seven sacraments more, and to think and act in communion with the Church,” he said.
“So, while a tattoo could not fulfill the requirements to be a proper sacramental in itself, if used in discernment and good faith it could certainly provide similar benefits and be helpful in the pursuit of holiness.”
Whitfield said that another reason that a tattoo would not be a proper scapular is because “an image is not the thing it images.”
“A picture of Michelangelo’s Pietà is not the same as seeing it in person. And standing in front of his sculpture pales in comparison to those who stood at the cross and saw Mary in person holding Christ’s lifeless body in her arms. The thing is always greater than the image. So, not only is a tattoo of the scapular not the scapular, but there’s some question of why it would be preferable; its an image of the thing, not the thing itself,” he said.
The Church already provides Catholics with an alternative to the traditional, woolen brown scapular through the wearing of a scapular medal, which was approved by the Church as a substitute for the scapular in 1910.
“Why? In certain tropical and subtropical areas of the world the use of a scapular had been identified as impractical. High levels of sweat would cause scapulars to break down and deteriorate at such a rate that they were hard to maintain,” Whitfield said.
Is it possible, then that the Catholic Church could extend through its authority the same graces and promises of the scapular to a tattoo of the scapular?
“Aside from the fact that as we’ve seen, tattoos do not seem to be of the nature to appropriately be a sacramental, I have a hard time seeing a practical purpose why such an extension should or would be made,” he said.
Part of the appeal of a scapular tattoo, as previously mentioned, is its permanence - someone with a scapular tattoo would not have to remember to put their scapular back on every morning when they got dressed.
But that remembrance is important, Whitfield said, and a one-time commitment “is not how the Christian life is lived.”
“Each and every day we recommit to the God whom we love. Even those who take permanent vows must choose to live them out each day. It is a daily struggle, and choosing to affirm that wearing the scapular is as important to me today as it was yesterday is part of the very commitment that one makes in putting it on,” he said.
Ultimately, Whitfield said, because God is all-powerful, he could decide to extend the graces of the scapular to someone with a scapular tattoo, but he is not bound to do so, as they are not the same as the sacraments of the Church.
“Sacramentals are reminders and holy practices which dispose us to grace, and through them we believe that God gives further graces by the will of his divine mercy,” Whitfield said.
“(God) has not bound himself to giving graces through sacramentals in the same way he has in the sacraments. So, might he be able to will to give the same graces to someone with a tattoo as someone who wears the scapular? He certainly could, but having the tattoo doesn’t mean he will.”
This article was originally published on CNA Aug. 29, 2019.