Q - My friend, "Jennifer" keeps talking about getting breast augmentation. I keep trying to convince her out of it, but i guess she has never been happy with her body in that regard. What is the church's stance on this sort of elective surgery? And in the bigger scheme what sort of morality issues exist regarding it? She is looking to do it purely for self esteem issues. Also, as an ancillary question, what is the church's position on other types of things like piercing or tattoos?
A - Thanks for the question. First I have to say that the Catholic Church doesn't get as specific in answering such issues as many would like. Rather, the Church gives us guiding moral principles and then we must try and do the most prudent thing while following our consciences. I know some might apply them to a situation themselves and say that everyone has to do the same, but this just isn't the case. So, what are some of the principles that would help us here? Let me give some.
1 - Therapeutic plastic surgery is generally considered a good thing. Think of a cleft lip. Having surgery to repair it to what is "normal" for a human is a good thing. The doctor is restoring the originally intended order of the body. In these situations there is no debate about right or wrong, it is a good thing to do.
2 - When there is no harm done and the surgery is not intrinsically wrong (such as sex change), then elective plastic surgery is left to the prudent choice of those involved.
3 - When there is significant harm done or the surgery is intrinsically wrong, then plastic surgery should not be done.
Other issues that should be part of the decision would be intent of the person (is it for a health reason or pure vanity), monetary resources, number of procedures (some people have many procedures), and more. A simple question might be - would the procedure harm the patient (physical, mental, spiritual) and what is the intent?
As for tattoos and piercings - this one can follow the same basic principles. First, I should say that they are not intrinsically wrong. If so, then just about 90% of women are in trouble for having their ears pierced. With that being said, there are different kinds of piercings and tattoos today.
If there was to be significant damage to the integrity of the body, then there getting a piercing or tattoo could be sinful. For instance, without getting too graphic, there are some kinds of piercings that can cause parts of the body to lose some or all functionality. If this is the case, then it is wrong.
Some of the principles mentioned above apply. For instance, what is the intent? Is the purpose of doing so to spite parents, hide a feature we don't like, please someone else, a part of a tribal ritual, etc? Some reasons are good, some are not.
Also, some kinds of modern body decoration lead to mutilating the body - these would be sinful to participate in.
Other guiding questions to ask - how will this effect others? We are not only to do as we wish, but rather we need to think of others. How will my parents, friends, family, employers, etc. react? Would it be offensive to others? Can I afford it or is it a strain to me financially? What will the tattoo contain? Is it a good message? Some get tattoos to show a devotion to Mary - that is a much different reason than spiting your parents.
I hope this helps.