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I’ve mellowed since the time when the thought of needles puncturing skin to inflict permanent markings made me cringe. Just the thought of it. Part of it is simple exposure. Everywhere, it seems, people bear yard after yard of marked-up skin. Some of it is witty, artistic, thought-provoking, even.

I know a young woman, an Olympic gold medalist, who had the Olympic rings tattooed on the small of her back. Consider hers hard-earned. It was a team thing.

One of the more thoughtful and engaging young men I know has tattooed around his forearm the phrase, “The sun shining and all the stars aflame.” It is a line from a letter of James Baldwin to his nephew. Baldwin is saying, in short, that for white America to acknowledge that the American power structure essentially perpetuates racism would be akin to waking up and finding the sun shining and all the stars ablaze.

The young man calls his tattoo a string around his finger, a constant reminder of racism and his part in it.

Though all tattoos are not destructive or offensive, some can be. As is clear in Arthur Jones’ story on page 14, tattoos can seriously interfere with life, even threaten it.

So we salute Sr. June Wilkerson for her resourcefulness and concern in helping victims of youthful indiscretion find a reprieve. Thanks to her efforts, they need no longer be marginalized or placed in jeopardy by the markings on their skin.

Recent discussions about shoring up Catholic identity at our institutions of higher learning have often focused on concerns about doctrinal orthodoxy in theology departments. Robert McClory’s story about the demonstration by Pax Christi members against military presence at the University of Notre Dame, page 3, raises essential questions about Catholic identity in other areas of campus life. Questions about Catholic teaching as it relates to war and weapons, so much a part of public discussion in the 1980s, have, unfortunately, been pushed to the sidelines since the end of the Cold War.

I think we have completely overlooked, in our assessment of our institutions’ Catholic character, the danger of breaching Catholic teaching by those who teach students to become modern warriors, not to mention by those departments receiving federal funds to underwrite research for the nation’s various military pursuits.

Pentagon money is a far greater threat to Catholic identity than the occasional theology professor who might breach the boundaries of what Rome considers orthodox today.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, April 27, 2001