In today’s culture, bad language has become widely accepted. We hear it in movies; we hear it in songs; we hear it on television; we hear it in our workplaces; we hear it in our homes; we hear it from our lips. I think it is fair to say that any man living in 21st century America would be hard pressed to go through the day without hearing some sort of profanity.  The spoken word has been so widely defiled that we, as a society, have become utterly desensitized to obscene and offensive language. Many of us may not even understand what the big deal is: how could the use foul language, especially when in the company of close, trusted friends, in jest (where we run no risk of scandal), be such a pressing problem? Certainly, we tell ourselves, our coarse vocabulary doesn’t constitute any serious sin, right?

We all know the 2nd Commandment: You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain. We all know that the glib inciting of God’s name, for superfluous reasons (often because we have nothing better to say but feel compelled to speak anyway), is an offense against the Ten Commandments. Yet, I would wager that comparatively few take serious issue with the misuse of speech, beyond taking the Lord’s name in vain. And perhaps they are right, to some degree. However, if we are being honest with ourselves, there is something profoundly offensive about the unfiltered and unapologetic use of vulgarity, profanity, or obscenity. Anytime we misuse the gift of speech, our soul is affected.

Scripture is clear on the issue. In Matthew 5:10-11, Jesus unequivocally tells us that “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Earlier in the same Gospel, Christ warns “on the Day of Judgment, people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians reiterates Christ’s admonishment, reminding his flock to “let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Even so, what’s the big deal? Why is it so bad if we occasionally let our mouths run, allowing obscenity to pour forth? Who really cares? Does bad language or poor speech really have any moral or theological significance?

Plunging deeper, the answers to such questions can be found in the very center of our faith: the Holy Trinity. As Catholics, we believe that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son, is Himself a word. In fact, He is the Word—the Word of God. The Gospel of John opens by proclaiming that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Since before all time the Word has existed. And, like all words, the Word is simply self-expression, the self-expression of the Trinity.

Yet, the Word did not just remain confined to the inner workings of the Trinity, left trapped in the mind of God. Rather, at a specific moment in history, as the Gospel of John goes on to proclaim, this uncreated and eternal Word “became flesh and dwelt among us:” the Word was spoken. We call this event the Incarnation, that pivotal moment in which the Word was spoken into history. Jesus is then, quite literally, the Godhead speaking to mankind, communicating with us in the most sublime way possible, in a language that we can understand. Christmas is thus nothing more than a celebration of God’s perfect self-utterance into time and space.

Take a moment to consider that the perfect, infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God that we profess in our creed is a spoken Word! Again, He is self-expression, expressed specifically to us! This is reason enough for us to take pause and consider just how profound and just how God-like the gift of speech is—and why we should never speak lightly! When we speak, when we use words to express ourselves, we are doing in some small, imperfect way, what the Godhead did through Incarnation: we are revealing our inmost selves so that others can know us, truly and intimately!

This is precisely why the use of vulgarity, profanity, or obscenity is such a big deal. When we let obscenity flow forth from our lips, whether by habit, by a mere slip of the tongue (both of which would admittedly lessen our moral culpability), or by genuine malice, we are corrupting the very avenue by which we were saved: speech. When we use foul language, we are making a mockery out of God’s very nature as the Word. By letting vulgarity, profanity, and obscenity run amok from our mouths, we imply that words don’t really matter and that it is okay to speak without thinking about just how awesome—and godly— the gift of speech truly is.

Therefore, it is our job as Catholic men to make sure that our words are worthy of the uncreated Word, God the Son. Although we will never be able to say anything that rivals the perfection of the Eternal Word, we can do our part to make sure that, to the best of our abilities, we avoid saying anything that degrades the infinite beauty that is speech. Whenever we feel tempted to use bad language or find ourselves trying to justify our poor speech, we would do well to remember that the Word is God and that, by the Incarnation, God showed mankind that words matter a great, great deal.

Don’t fool yourself into think that bad language has no theological significance. God saved us through speaking His Word; we should not condemn ourselves anew through misspeaking our own. The Word matters; our words matter: choose them wisely!

11 04 2015
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  • St. Longinus

    Very helpful. Thank you.

  • Sal

    Mea culpa. Still working on overcoming this. I occasionally pray the Litany of the Holy Name of Jesus to combat my transgressions in this area. Trying to make the occasional more frequent.

  • JCB

    It pains me to hear the Lord's name being used in a derogatorily or as a curse. The majority of people I believe use his name habitually with little if any thought. Each time I hear his name used disrespectfully I utter a praise "Praise Jesus or Praise the Lord". On occasion I will confront the person if I have an ongoing relationship, friendship or other connection that I know will allow for a non confrontational exchange or teaching moment.

    • St. Longinus

      In reparation, I silently say, "Admirable is the Name of God" whenever I think about blasphemy/profanity/vulgarity whether my own, or heard from others.

  • Ron

    As offensive as "bad language" can be, I'm far more concerned with the hateful and hurtful content of people's comments. Not only does it condemn the speaker, but it can inflict a great deal of pain and suffering for the recipient.

  • Blake

    This was a good article addressing issues with foul language. I am around people who use cuss words nearly every other word and don't even bat an eye. I, myself have become numb to the use of cuss words. In turn using foul language limits our intellect and does not challenge us to use our brains to express how we feel.

    • Pat_h

      I'm in the same situation as Blake. Indeed, I'm amazed by how language that once I only heard in basic training is now heard in board rooms. It's amazing. And I find that over time my own standards of speech have declined a bit, which I intend to address.

  • Christopher

    I tell my kids that, in addition to the poor example profanity sets to "the world," it is also a reflection of their education. Do they really want to go through life using the same half a dozen exclamations, or do they want to demonstrate a vocabulary that knows some variety?

  • gomer

    St. Paul cussed. He used the most vulgar word of his time for what we all translate in our Bible's as "dung" or "refuse". But he didn't say that. He said "Sh*t" in the Greek text.

    • Pauley

      Sorry. Do your etymological research. The term isn't even close to being old as St. Paul. It is an 18th century acronym for "Ship High in Transport." Ships sailing across the ocean hauling manure-based fertilizer would take on sea water below decks. Mixed with the fertilizer, this would cause tremendous explosions. Hence the acronym was stamped on the fertilizer containers, indicating they were to be carried above deck. Check your British seafaring history.

  • Eric

    This is very theologically inaccurate. A lot about what he says about the The Word. I usually wouldn't harp on little slips but basically half of what was said about the word was not really true. Like gods nature is not a word, it is existence. aldo the incarnation was not when the word started to exist. The word always was like it says in john 1. There's more but since this correlation is about half the argument, it would make half of the reasons in true. God is a Word, we use words so don't used bad words. It still doesn't explain why they are bad. And every biblical argument just assumes they are bad but doesn't prove they are bad. Like Ephesians: of course we shouldn't let evil come out of our mouth but are these words evil. The rest assume in the same way.

    • Michael bower

      Eric,

      I think you might want to re read the article. Mr. Boyden does not say that the word came into existence at the Incarnation, but rather that the word was spoken into creation.

      Or maybe I am misunderstanding your comment?

      • Eric

        You're right. I miss read that part when he said the the "word was spoken into history". Even still it's a weak argument. God being a word, and us using words doesn't seem to connect to, don't use bad words.

    • Eric

      Sorry there are many grammatical errors in that.

  • Loyd McIntire

    This article helped me a lot, especially the quote from St. Matthew. Thank you.

  • James Harrell

    Many, many years ago, I had bit more control of my mouth than I do today. I didn't cuss, my speech was never suggestive in any way; and I really tried to use language that would be uplifting to the listener. But then, we moved away from our old neighborhood, and I moved away from the practice of going to church; and my speech became littered with profanities, and my mind was opened to obscene images, and here I am today. Feeling like a starving man, who needs spiritual nourishment. I've had conversations online with people; debates really, where flashes of who I was all those years ago surfaced for a time and then left me again. I want very much to regain what I feel I've lost; self-control over my speech, and feeling satisfied spiritually again. I don't know...maybe spiritual satisfaction is something you only get for a short time, then you are left to grow or fail; to fly or be grounded. I'll see how it goes from here.

    • Ted

      James: Try starting by going back to church. It can't hurt.

    • Josh

      Praying for you, sir. Fight to be the man you ought to be. I find using silly words like cramanitly, dang, or shoot as substitutes helps, as well as saying an Our Father or Hail Mary, when I am tempted. Also, when you want to say something profane, or obscene, and you do stop yourself, you can take that opportunity and try to train your mind to associate the anger, surprise, disgust, etc. you are feeling on that moment with the silly substitute, so over time it will become easier. Just my 2 cents.

      • Buddy

        Yes, the movie "Elf" has helped me with some replacement phrases in times of linguistic stress. "Son of a Nutcracker" and " Cotton-Headed Ninnymuggins" are among my favorites.