Is getting a tattoo or smoking a sin?

Catholic News Service

Q. Since we are only stewards of our bodies until we die, I was wondering whether such things as smoking, getting tattoos, excessive tanning and working out either too little or too much are sinful, according to the beliefs of the Catholic Church. (Columbus, Ohio)

A. First, there is a solid scriptural basis for your claim that we are only stewards of our bodies. St. Paul asks the early Christian believers, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? Therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20).

You have answered part of your question by the way you have defined the terms. Excessive tanning is clearly wrong, since it suggests that the consequence could be skin cancer, a nexus which is well-documented medically.

Similarly, “working out too little or too much” implies that one is ignoring the need for physical exercise (thus inviting cardio-vascular problems and obesity) or that someone is risking harm by overtaxing the body.

So let’s focus here on the two remaining issues: smoking and tattoos.

Father Kenneth Doyle

The only reference to smoking in the church’s official teaching would seem to be Section 2290 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church where we read that “the virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco or medicine.”

Clearly, if only the abuse is to be avoided, then smoking by itself is not prohibited.

But the catechism was published in 1994, and since then evidence has grown about the harm from smoking to the smokers and to bystanders subjected to secondhand smoke.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that, in the U.S. alone, upward of 400,000 people die annually from smoking-related causes; and a study by Emory University showed that pregnant women who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day were 85 percent more likely to give birth to a child who is developmentally disabled.

I think that you can look for the Catholic Church, moving forward, to voice more and more concern over the morality of smoking.

There has been an indication of this in a 2004 article in the scholarly Jesuit review La Civilta Cattolica. There, Father Giuseppe De Rosa mentions some of the medical consequences of smoking and, while stopping short of branding it a sin, says smokers cannot damage their own health and that of others “without moral responsibility.”

The particular significance of the article is that La Civilta Cattolica is considered a semiofficial publication, since its articles are prescreened for

A tattoo of St. Padre Pio is seen on a man's arm. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

doctrinal orthodoxy by the Vatican Secretariat of State.

As for tattoos, there is a line in Leviticus 19:28 where, through Moses, God admonishes the Israelites, “Do not lacerate your bodies for the dead, and do not tattoo yourselves. I am the Lord.”

The particular context, though, was this: God was cautioning the Jews not to adopt the mourning customs of their idolatrous Canaanite neighbors. One verse earlier the Jews were advised, “Do not clip your hair at the temples, nor trim the edges of your beard” — and presumably, God does not today oppose getting a haircut or a trim.

So there is no specific church teaching against tattoos, and in some cultures, notably in some parts of Oceania, tattoos serve as a necessary rite of passage into adulthood.

Leaving aesthetics aside, the morality of tattoos depends on the attendant circumstances. Is it a health risk, because the particular tattoo parlor uses dirty needles which invite infection? What does the tattoo portray? (Some show religious symbols, while others are vulgar or even demonic).

Is it excessively expensive, when resources are needed for things more substantial? In the case of minors who are under the authority of their parents, is it an act of disobedience and defiance?