Last year in September I posted this post on vulgarity and its relationship to a distinctively Christian vantage. It was a veritable blog-bomb, sending my daily readership from ~60 to nearly 9000 in a few days. My original choice for the Post title was not just meant to be a clever play on words, but also was meant to highlight the particular ugliness of that word, which degrades the beauty of the marital act that, as Bl. John Paul II taught us so well, holds a privileged place in revealing the life-creating beauty of God’s providential design.
I had really forgotten about the Post until recently when I was reading St. Catherine of Siena’s biography by Bl. Raymond of Capua (a must-read, BTW), and he mentioned in passing that her family home “knew of none of the coarse and vulgar language that is so common these days.” Then, shortly after I came across that passage I was talking to a woman who shared with me her being scandalized over a prominent ecclesiastic who had engaged free-form swearing in her presence. “He speaks the words of Jesus at Mass and then speaks like that?”, she said.
I decided to go back and edit the Post, adding a few thoughts here and there (and I was mortified to see how many grammatical mistakes there were in it!), and re-post it today. I guess profanity is a subject always in season.
In addition, since last year I took the time to read a non-religious book on the topic, Swearing: The Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, Profanity in English, by Geoffrey Hughes, to broaden my own contextual horizons on the subject. Some day I hope to write a more serious article on the topic.
What Hughes’ book makes clear is the obvious point that swearing has always been around, and has always admitted of a remarkably innovative creativity in the universal human search for linguistic strategies to shock sensibilities and treat the revered irreverently, playfully or violently rendering the unspeakable spoken, the private public, the serious ridiculous, the sacred profane and the modest immodest. What has changed in the last 50 or so years, Hughes argues, is that there has been an explosive growth of sexual profanity with a concomitant decline in the use of religious oaths to swear. In addition, the social boundaries that ‘contain’ and limit profanity have progressively expanded and/or dissolved, and vulgar culture has found itself ever more diffused and democratized.
Blasphemy has also lost some of its punch in the face of secularization, Hughes contends, thought this is itself a very important topic for consideration that I will not explore much here (see the Catechism’s discussion).
If you’re interested, here are my wandering thoughts for your own reflective consideration.
While pondering this whole issue afresh from within a Christian vantage, I called to mind some relevant biblical texts that I will share with you.
James 3 came first to mind — it’s a mini Gospel of the Tongue that is marked by James’ usual incisive style, decrying the use of language unbecoming creatures created to sound forth blessing. I include here some of the choice lines:
If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle his whole body also.
If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide their whole bodies…
In the same way the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions. Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze.
The tongue is also a fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers.
Matthew 12:34-37, referred to above in the image I inserted, also offers us a powerful insight into Jesus’ approach to language:
…from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.
A good person brings forth good out of a store of goodness, but an evil person brings forth evil out of a store of evil.
I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak.
By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.
Again, Colossians 3:8 comes to mind. There, St. Paul reminds the Colossians of their pre-Christian, pagan manner of life:
…in this way you too once conducted yourselves, when you lived in that way. But now you must put them all away: anger, fury, malice, slander, and obscene language out of your mouths.
The Scottish Biblical scholar William Barclay (Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s favorite biblical scholar) made this aside in his commentary on this section of Colossians:
There can never have been a time in history when so much filthy language is used as it is today. And the tragedy is that today there are many people who have become so habituated to unclean talk that they are unaware that they are using it.
Finally, I thought, Do we have any evidence in the New Testament of Christians cursing and swearing? In fact, we do. The only reference is to Peter, the salty fisherman, who curses a blue streak at the very moment he’s denying he has any knowledge of Christ. Mark 14:70-72.
I’m just sayin’.
That said, one might make a good biblical case for what I will here call “soft” vulgarity. The well-placed, “soft” cuss-word can be effective, as St. Paul demonstrates in Philippians 3:8 by using the Greek word skubalon, which, though usually translated as ‘rubbish,’ is the equivalent of the English word, “crap.” In fact, I once read a comment by Saint Josemaría Escrivá in response to the question of whether or not it was acceptable to use “salty language” to speak the Gospel to unconverted sailors (in Peru). His answer was fascinating: ”To use an occasional well-placed rough word, as long as it does not offend against the divine Name, purity or human dignity, can be useful for evangelizing in reaching those whose native tongue is salty.”
A really discerning answer, it seems to me, though discerning salt from toxins is itself an art. The key here, though, is that a Christian is discerning and always makes the decision in service to the Gospel.
The Jewish-Christian view of language sees ‘the word’ as a primal sign of God’s image stamped in humanity, and icon of God’s all-creative Word who became flesh to reveal to us the regal purpose of language: to manifest the original purity, dignity, beauty, truth and goodness of creation, to redeem that which has defiled creation, and to raise creation back to God in the form of thanks and praise.
The core-call of the Christian in this world is to be a unique, set-apart sign of the way humanity’s supposed to be. It’s the ‘Christian difference’ that sets us apart so that others might “see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 5:16).
After reading Fr. Brendan Purcell’s book, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution, I was astounded by the staggering mystery of the origins of human language, and amazed by the thought that this God-breathed universe labored for billions of years to birth human beings that could finally give it a voice to return to its Maker a Godlike language filled with thanksgiving and praise.
When I closed the book the night I read his chapter on language, I wondered: Did that whole history, conceived in the mind of God before all ages, unfold only to give birth to the F-bomb?
Our language either reveals or conceals the divine image stamped in the human heart, and when we stand before the ‘dread judgment seat of Christ’ we will be asked to account for the every word. Mine will certainly be a lengthy judgment.
Our bodies were made to glorify God, and our bodies were transformed in Baptism into Temples of the ineffable Trinity. Temples. That’s a mystery that, in the words of my son, makes my brain shut down. In a venerable and ancient Eastern Christian tradition, our voices are seen as the prime instruments of our bodily Temple.
A friend of mine, who works in construction, expressed this very vividly to me once. After undergoing a dramatic conversion back to the Catholic faith, he said to me one day while we were laying flooring together, “I can’t even cuss any more, cuz now I know the Holy Spirit’s inside me listening!”
A few summers ago I spent time with a priest who has served for 40+ years as an exorcist. He’s got some amazing stories to tell! But one thing in particular that he mentioned stuck with me, something that’s pertinent to this topic. He said, “One universal characteristic of exorcisms is that the inhabiting demons know how to curse and blaspheme in all languages; blasphemy, vulgarity and profanity are their lingua franca.”
Why? Because they’re in the business of concealing, not revealing God.
I remember in July of 1987, about 6 months after my “conversion experience” to a deep and living faith, I was working in a factory in the machine shop. The men there were good and hard working men, many of them had been there for decades. And they were prolific in their creative effusions of salty language.
After my life-changing conversion, I had made what was for me a very radical decision: to never swear again.
One day we were all taking lunch and “talking shop.” As ever, the profanities danced off their tongues like a litany. I thought to myself, “Man, I am tired of acting like I’m holier-than-thou!” So I threw in to the conversation (with pleasure!) a juicy cuss word. They all stopped dead in the middle of the conversation, looked at me, and the bearded elder of the group said, “Nope. That’s not who you are, Neal. Don’t lower yourself.”
And they continued on reciting their litany, and left me making a final, inner resolution to take The Pledge.