My wife is seriously considering cosmetic surgery, and we’re not sure about where the Church stands on this issue.
Of course, any reconstructive surgery is morally acceptable: correcting a cleft palate, for example, or restoring facial features after an accident.
But these days, there are countless elective surgeries available, from tummy tucks to nose jobs to breast augmentation. What about those? The Church does not officially teach on this subject specifically, so the matter is really one of personal prudential judgment.
Though not explicitly referring to elective cosmetic surgery, in a section titled “Respecting the Dignity of the Person,” the Catechism does offer wisdom to help us discern these issues: “Life and health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God ... If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for its sake, to idolize physical perfection” (No. 2289).
With those thoughts in mind, we would consider a few questions. Most important, what is the motivating factor behind the desire for the procedure? At its heart, is the motive about “idolizing physical perfection,” as the Catechism warns?
In our judgment such procedures would be wrong if the desire was to somehow deny the aging process or to become an object of lust or to alter one’s physical features so much that it would cause him or her to be viewed as a mere sexual object.
We’d also be careful that the impetus was not a superficial solution to a deeper self-image problem.
On the other hand, procedures that enhance the beauty of the entire person, and don’t draw attention to a specific body part, may be acceptable.
For example, suppose a woman feels extremely self-conscious because she has a very large nose. She may feel as if people see her not as a complete person but as a body attached to a proboscis. Cosmetic surgery here seems acceptable, because she is hoping to draw attention away from the distraction and toward her entire person.
We’re wary of the prevalent drive for women who have borne children to quickly look as if they were never pregnant. As we heard Kimberly Hahn say once at a conference, “Why can’t women look like they’ve just given birth? THEY DID!” We shouldn’t let ourselves be swept up in the unrealistic standards of our culture.
And, finally, the costs are usually substantial and not often covered by medical insurance. Can you afford the procedure without taking away from the needs of the family? Is it the best use of that amount of money? Are you being a good steward of the blessings God has granted you?
Our best advice is to continue to talk with each other and pray about it. May the Holy Spirit grant you wisdom.
The McDonalds are family-life coordinators for the Archdiocese of Mobile, Alabama.