In this article, William Esser explains, with quotes from Scripture, the harm done to oneself and others by the use of bad language. He divides bad language into three categories and states why it is wrong to speak in such a manner. He also gives some suggestions on how to break the habit.
What did you just say?!?! You Come Here, Right This Second!! Now, you march yourself off to the bathroom, take that bar of soap, and wash your mouth out until it’s good and clean. And don’t let me EVER hear words like that coming out of your mouth again!”
So little Ralphie (taken from that modern holiday classic “A Christmas Story,”— “You’ll shoot your eye out”) is sent off to contemplate the mysteries of life over a mouthful of Ivory. Meanwhile, we sit downstairs lamenting and wondering where in the world he could have managed to pick up words like that. And just as in the movie, the culprit is often staring back at us from his silent vantage point on the other side of the mirror. The same words that shock us coming from children seem to flow without a second thought from our very lips. Why is that?
Bad language (also known as “four letter words”, foul language, profanity, swearing, and cursing) can be divided into three categories. First, there is the misuse of the sacred. Using God’s Name in vain, damning people and things to hell, reviling heaven, and blaspheming all fit into this category (the sacred category). While very frequently abused, this is also the easiest category to address. Simply put, the Second Commandment (“Thou shalt not use the name of the Lord thy God in vain”) prohibits any such misuse.
“The second commandment forbids the abuse of God’s name, i.e. every improper use of the names of God, Jesus Christ, but also of the Virgin Mary and all the saints” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 2146).“Blasphemy is directly opposed to the second commandment… The prohibition of blasphemy extends to language against Christ’s Church, the saints, and sacred things… [and] is in itself a grave sin” (CCC 2148).”Let not your mouth form the habit of swearing, or becoming too familiar with the Holy Name…[O]ne who swears continually by the Holy Name will not remain free from sin.” (Sirach 23:9).
Second, there are the words, which refer to the excretory functions of the body (the excretory category). In common usage, they are rarely spoken for their underlying meaning. (When was the last time you walked down the street and heard somebody yell, “Excrement!”). Instead, they are used as derogatory expletives to insult and show contempt, or merely as conversation fillers. As insults, they are forbidden by Christ’s commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). As verbal fillers, they are divorced from their meaning and fail to comport with a Christian standard of language. “Let your speech be always gracious and in good taste, and strive to respond properly to all who address you” (Colossians 4:6).
“It is not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him impure; it is what comes out of his mouth… Do you not see that everything that enters the mouth passes into the stomach and is discharged into the latrine, but what comes out of the mouth originates in the mind? It is things like these that make a man impure” (Matthew 15:11, 17-18).”[E]veryone who grows angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; any man who uses abusive language toward his brother shall be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and if he holds him in contempt he risks the fires of Gehenna” (Matthew 5:22).
The third and final category is composed of those words, which refer to the sexual organs or the act of sex itself (the sexual category). All of these words are derogatory, treating sex solely as a means of pleasure and reducing the human person to a mere object. Like the excretory words, most of them are used as insults or mere utterances devoid of any relation to the meaning of the word.
“We use [the tongue] to say, ‘Praised be the Lord and Father’; then we use it to curse men, though they are made in the likeness of God. Blessing and curse come out of the same mouth. This ought not to be, my brothers!” (James 3:9-10).”You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within the Spirit you have received from God… So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).”You must put that aside now: all the anger and quick temper, the malice, the insults, the foul language” (Colossians 3:8).
Well, speech is our way of communicating as social beings and words have meanings. When you casually say “Oh my God,” you’re using the divine name, whether or not you mean anything by it. When you curse using words from the sexual category, you denigrate the most intimate of unions, the act whereby two become one and God brings new life into the world.
Simply because there is no harm in your heart doesn’t make this action right. Society would not long tolerate a person constantly uttering racial epithets, regardless of the intention behind the words, and neither should we tolerate profanity. “Let not your mouth become used to coarse talk, for in it lies sinful matter” (Sirach 23:13).
We certainly are creatures of habit. Some of these include smoking, drug abuse, lying and a host of other things. The critical distinction is that cursing is a bad habit, one, which we should strive to overcome. Christ calls us to be perfect as He is perfect. Can you picture yourself using bad language in front of Jesus, “the Lord of all speech”? (CCC 2152). Or even in front of your parents or children for that matter? “Nor should there be any obscene, silly, or suggestive talk; all that is out of place” (Ephesians 5:4).
Popularity can be a very good thing, but only if it is achieved through good and noble deeds. As Christians, our goal is to follow Jesus, not to seek popularity. “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own; the reason it hates you is that you do not belong to the world. But I chose you out of the world” (John 15:19). Placing popularity before Christ’s commands is a serious wrong.
To the contrary, it hurts many people. First of all, you hurt yourself. “A man who has the habit of abusive language will never mature in character as long as he lives” (Sirach 23:15). Abusing the sacred is directly sinful. Use of the excretory and sexual categories distorts our view of creation and fills our mind with thoughts, which keep us from God. “The tongue defiles the entire body” (James 3:6). For a soul is like an empty glass and bad language like pebbles. The purpose of a glass is to hold water. But as we fill our glass with pebbles, there is less and less room for Jesus, the water of salvation. “If a man who does not control his tongue imagines that he is devout, he is deceived; his worship is pointless” (James 1:26).
Second, you hurt those around you by leading them to use bad language. This is exactly how little Ralphie got himself in trouble. He heard bad language repeated over and over, until he began to feel that it was normal and began using it himself. Leading others into sin through example is a grievous wrong (CCC 2284). “Scandal will inevitably arise, but woe to him through whom they come. He would be better off thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck than giving scandal to one of these little ones” (Luke 17:1-2).
Christ’s message to us is clear. In order to become perfect, we must give ourselves completely to Him. Every thought and word should be spent in His service, and controlling our tongues is an integral part of this struggle. “If a person is without fault in speech he is a man in the fullest sense, because he can control his entire body” (James 3:2). Now, it may not be easy to overcome the use of bad language, particularly if it has become habitual. Even the Bible acknowledges how easy it is to use bad words unintentionally. “[A] man can slip and not mean it; who has not sinned with his tongue?” (Sirach 19:15). So here are a few tips to help you gain control over your speech:
a) Pay attention to what you say and the manner in which you say it. “He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from trouble” (Proverbs 21:23). The old rule of counting before you speak can come in very handy. “O Lord, set a watch before my mouth, a guard at the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3).
b) Do not allow bad language in your thoughts, for it is from the mind that words originate. The only way to kill a weed is by getting at the root, and the only way to control the mouth is by first controlling the brain.
c) Ask those around you to refrain from using bad language. By doing this, you keep these words out of your mind and help others to break their evil habits.
d) Avoid movies, television shows and books, which use excessive language. Frequent exposure to cursing is the easiest way to fall into the habit of using bad language.
Most of all, however, pray about it, for without God’s help we can do nothing. May we every day join in praying that each act, word and deed of our lives may be done in the service of the Lord. “Let the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:15).
William Esser is a recent graduate of Notre Dame Law School and is currently working as a law clerk on the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.For those interested in a secular viewpoint on the use of bad language, he recommends the website of the Cuss Control Academy: www.cusscontrol.com.