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When it comes to exploring the official catechism cautions of the Catholic Church, the majority of believers have the same principle of not idealizing physical perfection; however, there was not much mentioned about specific plastic surgeries. Nevertheless, according to Oppenheimer’s article in The New York Times, at least two popes have raised the issue of cosmetic surgery. For instance, in 1958, Pope Pius XII stated that the morality of cosmetic surgeries relies on the specific characteristics of every case; moreover, Pope John Paul II gave positive feedback to the noble mission of maxillofacial and dental surgeons who work closely with cosmetic procedures.
It can be hypothesized that the stance of the Catholic Church on plastic surgery is not defined completely: while some operations such as post-accident reconstructions may be regarded as acceptable, it remains unclear whether the Church opposes the “ego-related” enhancements of appearance.
The Evolution of Plastic Surgery
The growing popularity of plastic (cosmetic, reconstructive) surgeries as a socially acceptable type of body modification have contributed to the expansion of the cosmetic surgery industry that keeps gaining momentum even today (Frederick et al.). In order to examine the topic of such operations in greater detail, it is important first to make a differentiation between reconstructive and cosmetic procedures. Reconstructive surgery is usually performed when there is a need to treat those areas (structures) of a human body that have been affected congenitally by trauma, abnormalities in development, diseases, and tumors with an aim to improve function and ability. Cosmetic surgery, on the other hand, is aimed at only enhancing the appearance of an individual; therefore, not in all cases, cosmetic surgery is performed to restore one’s appearance after a trauma or a disease.
The stance of the Catholic Church on the performance of cosmetic and reconstructive surgeries remains dual. In medieval times, the Catholic Church opposed any kind of operations similar to plastic surgery on the grounds that they might “interfere with the Divine Will” (Sullivan 34). For this reason, plastic surgery was hidden in the closet because people did not want to admit that their beauty did not come from the Divine Will or God’s creation. Such an attitude can be traced back to 1st century Italy and Greece, where Aulus Cornelius Celsus advocated for the special operations performed on people’s lips, eyelids, and noses (Reiter 80). Moreover, in the sixteenth century, Gaspare Tagliacozzi from Bolognia became famous for his successful plastic surgeries and the enduring techniques of facial reconstruction of duels’ victims during the Renaissance (Reiter 80). According to him, reconstructive surgeries were not performed for the sake of pleasing the eye but rather to uplift the spirit of ones afflicted (Reiter 80). Because of his perspective on plastic surgery, Tagliacozzi had some major battles with the Catholic Church that postulated that accidents or birth deformities were to be regarded as “the will of God” and were not supposed to be changed. After Tagliacozzi’s death, his soul was damned by the Church, which speaks a lot about how those who went against the Catholic ideology were treated.
For the next several centuries, the practice of plastic surgery was considered blasphemous and was suppressed until its reintroduction at the end of the eighteenth century by the medics of France, Italy, Germany, and France. The first nasal reconstruction was performed in 1897 in Rochester by Dr. John Orlando Roe and in 1898 by Berlin by Dr. Jacques Joseph (Reiter 81). With the creation of the Boeing 707 plane in the 1960s, a social group known under the name of “jet-set” became very popular. Dr. Ivo Pitanguy, a Brazilian plastic surgeon, was a member of this group. He began making contacts with celebrities to make them more beautiful. Since then, plastic surgeries became widespread and started to be accepted by the general public.
Women and Cosmetic Surgery: Argument Against
In the paper “Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference,” composed by an identified group of women and addressed to the Pontifical Council for Culture, cosmetic surgery was explored within the context of modern media, advertisement, issues surrounding body image (Oppenheimer). The paper concluded by placing a Catholic perspective on bioethical issues that other religious groups such as Muslims and Jews also deem unacceptable (Oppenheimer). Therefore, the authors had a negative stance on cosmetic surgery performed on women, stating that it was a betrayal of the “truth of the feminine self” (“Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference” 7) and a contribution to the exploitation of the female bodies for the monetary benefit. Even more extreme, the document compared plastic surgery to burqa (an outer garment worn by Islamic women to cover themselves). Despite such a definite opinion regarding plastic surgery, Christina Traina (Ph.D. in theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School) stated that critiquing plastic surgery without putting the blame on women themselves was the right way to go. It is the society rather than women themselves that creates unrealistic standards of beauty, which leads to plastic surgery operations. Nevertheless, critics stated that the language of the document regarding women’s rights to perform plastic surgery was undercutting a progressive message: there was nothing stated about men doing plastic surgery, which reinforced a patriarchal message that devaluated women compared to men.
It is crucial to mention that the stance of the Catholic church on plastic surgery is exclusive to women; therefore, there is a certain idealized perception of women’s nature: the Church saw ‘the womb’ (and not the brain) as the pinnacle of women’s physical embodiment (Oppenheimer). This statement explains why the Church has placed plastic surgery under such scrutiny – women are regarded as living to give birth and extend the human race, not to be beautiful by social standards or be able to change their appearance to their liking. Trying to protect women from ruining their dignity because of engaging in plastic surgery, the Church warned them against the adverse circumstance of becoming subjected to social standards. However, the explanation of how the Catholic Church viewed men who had plastic surgeries done remains unclear.
Argument Pro Reconstructive Surgery
On the other side of the argument, there are opinions that the morality of performing cosmetic surgery depends on the peculiarities of every case, so it is irrational to make a general judgment regarding plastic surgery. As to this point of view, it is worth citing Pope Pius’s XII papal statement given to Italian cosmetic surgeons. Pope Pius XII said, “many faces of God’s children, whom misfortune has refused them the gift to reflect their beauty, regain their lost smile by your science and your art” (qt. in Pentin par. 10). Moreover, Pope John Paul II praised Italian maxillofacial and dental surgeons (operating on jaws, faces, and necks) for their work. He stated that the work of the doctors was a noble mission and true art that helped people to restore their mental wellbeing with the aid of restoring the defects that existed in their bodies. However, in this case, there is a clear distinction between cosmetic and reconstructive surgery: both heads of the Catholic church spoke positively about surgeons who helped people restore their appearance or function of their bodies instead of changing them for ego-related purposes.
As seen from the analysis of the Church’s opinions about plastic surgery, there is a clear differentiation between cosmetic surgery done to enhance or change one’s appearances and reconstructive surgery that is usually performed to restore a body’s function or give it an aesthetically pleasing appearance after accidents and other cases that damaged one’s body (including birth defects).
Nevertheless, despite such a differentiation, it remains unclear as to whom the Church is trying to protect, especially in the case of opposing plastic surgery as a means of enhancing and improving physical appearance for the sake of beauty. Both men and women can be deeply affected by the way they look, and there is essentially nothing immoral done when it comes to cosmetic surgery. Going against the will of God is a principle that no one wants to follow, especially regarding a socially acceptable practice of either cosmetic or reconstructive surgery. Therefore, the Catholic Church should invest in clearly articulating its position on both types of plastic surgeries due to the inconsistencies and omissions. There is also nothing particular stated about the consequences of ignoring the views of the Church as to plastic surgeries due to the lack of consistency in the statements of priests or specialists of the Catholic religion. It is possible that the Church is trying to protect people against mistakes, which they could regret in the future; although, if it was so, there should have been a clear statement regarding the intentions of the Church that opposes cosmetic surgeries.
It is confusing how plastic surgeries may affect human dignity, especially if they are being performed to make a person feel better about himself or herself and relieve possible psychological burdens associated with the external world. There is a variety of reasons why people may undergo plastic surgery; from accidents to enhancing facial features, both men and women would like to be more attractive, either for personal reasons of boosting confidence or being treated as more attractive, especially in Western society. Among the benefits of plastic surgeries, increased self-confidence, improved physical health, enhanced mental health, and more opportunities stand out as the most prominent. For these reasons only, cosmetic surgeries are worth it for many people, especially those who feel insecure inside their bodies. Of course, there are some common-sense boundaries when it comes to changing one’s appearance; however, each person should be in charge of his or her body and life, and the Church should not intervene in that.
When thinking about the impact of plastic surgery on future generations, it can be asserted that any type of surgical advancements in health care could only be beneficial and offer a variety of opportunities. Regarding the position of the Catholic Church, modern society has become very accepting of plastic surgery procedures, and there is no point for the religious world to oppose it since many Catholic believers and atheists undergo plastic surgery for a variety of personal reasons that should not be discussed publicly.
Frederick, David, et al. “Interest in Cosmetic Surgery and Body Image: Views of Men and Women across the Lifespan.” Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, vol. 120, no. 5, 2007, pp. 1407-1415.
Oppenheimer, Mark. “Catholics, Plastic Surgery, and ‘the Truth of the Feminine Self’.” Nytimes. 2015, Web.
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Pentin, Edward. “Plastic Surgery: Not Just for the Rich and Famous.” Ncregister. 2010, Web.
Reiter, Alvin. Even Doctors Cry: Love, Death, Scandal, and a Terribly Flawed Medical System. Author House, 2009.
Sullivan, Deborah. Cosmetic Surgery: The Cutting Edge of Commercial Medicine in America. Rutgers University Press, 2004.
“Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference.” Cultura. 2015, Web.