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!