Question: Botox, facelifts, tummy tucks, “mommy makeovers,” etc., are very popular. People who have had accidents or illnesses have a legitimate need for reconstructive surgery. But is it sinful to undergo nonessential cosmetic surgeries and procedures because we want to look better?
— Name, location withheld
Answer: No one doubts, as you note, that reconstructive surgeries are often necessary to remove scars, help restore skin that is burned, or repair birth defects or the results of physical trauma.
As for nonessential cosmetic surgeries, there are a number of factors to consider in morally evaluating them. First, the medical risks must somehow commensurate with the benefit sought. While most surgery has some risk, cosmetic surgeries are not generally substantially risky. However, preexisting medical conditions, such as problems with anesthesia, can raise the risk level. Age, too, is an important factor in risk. It would be wrong to significantly risk one’s health or well-being for surgeries that are more centered on appearance than true need. Another factor is cost, wherein it is wrong to spend exorbitant amounts on elective surgeries if one has financial obligations to dependents, creditors or others, including the obligation we have to be generous to the poor. Another concern is if cosmetic surgery might affect the functioning of the body. Sometimes, too many surgeries on the skin cause it to become inelastic, or neuropathies or other aliments develop that affect its functioning. Gold onlays for teeth can weaken them, tattooing of eyes for color can adversely affect their functions, and numerous piercings, especially of the nose, tongue, lips, etc., can introduce a susceptibility to infections by interfering with the mucous membranes. While some of these deleterious effects are minor, that is not always the case for everyone, and this should be considered.
However, we should not simply dismiss all concern for the way we look as vanity. There are some in this life who are significantly troubled by some aspect of their appearance and a fairly minor surgery can remove this preoccupation. Some also have their appearance tied to their careers. Right or wrong, actors, TV personalities, fitness experts and others in the visual arts are often judged highly on their appearance. If certain relatively minor surgeries can assist them maintaining a career and income in such settings, it is likely harmless enough.
A danger, however, to be avoided is the tendency toward multiple cosmetic surgeries. It is one thing to correct a minor imperfection and be done with it. But what can too easily happen is that one becomes increasingly obsessed with every perceived imperfection, and cosmetic surgeries become almost addictive. We cannot ultimately stave off all the effects of aging and should not seek to alter everything in our appearance that we choose to dislike. At some point, we begin to reject the person God made us to be.
There are not mathematical certainties in evaluating all nonessential cosmetic surgeries, but surely there are concerns to heed and limits we ought not transgress.
Heaven for children?
Question: What is the Catholic teaching regarding life after death for the unborn (miscarriage, stillborn, abortion) and children up to age 7.
— Richard Mackin, Maine
Answer: The common view among Catholic theologians in regard to the unborn or little children who are not baptized prior to their death is that they are with the Lord in heaven. There is no settled dogma on this matter taught by the Church because God has not revealed what happens to them. However, the judgment of reason can make some feasible conclusions based on God’s justice — namely, that such infants or little children do not deserve the punishment of hell and, regarding the need to be baptized, are not held responsible for what they could not reasonably know or do. God, therefore, must somehow supply for what is lacking. Does he offer them a choice and thus supply their baptism, or does he simply “wave them through”? We are not sure. However, given his respect for our freedom, it seems likely that he quickens (or matures) their intellect and offers them the choice of salvation. But these details are speculative.
As for children under 7 who were baptized, it is unclear if any purgation is needed. We do not ascribe sufficient reason to them such that we hold them morally responsible for sins; however, as we all know, little children can be very irascible and need discipline. It may be that some purgation is needed for this tendency that little children have. Here, too, we can only speculate based on reason.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.