My aim here is to clear certain misunderstandings on the topic of, ‘bad language’ and to present an argument for why swearing (that which we call the use of ‘bad language’) may be sinful (but not gravely so). Taking the Lord’s name in vain will be excluded from this argument because of how obviously sinful it is (any Christian who doesn’t agree about that may be interested in and benefit from reading Exodus 20:1–17). The purpose then for this writing is to show the inherent worth or badness of swearing, while not focusing on any secondary effects or disadvantages. I’ll begin by defining what we mean by ‘swearing’ and what uses are being talked about. Then I will continue by attempting to dissolve some common arguments against swearing, so as to clear the stage for a more logical analysis of it. Then I will attempt to dissolve some arguments for swearing. Finally, I will present my argument for why I believe it to be wrong to swear. Then I will discuss the particular gravity of the sin. I will end with some certain quotes from scripture regarding the topic.
• Defining our topic
First, it is necessary to define the topic and what I will mean when I say the phrases, ‘swearing’, ‘cursing’, or ‘bad language’. I mean specifically the F/S/C/words and all racial vulgarities. Also, any other words which the speaker would regard as swearing. The usage I’m specifically talking about is the casual use of these words without any intent of offending or hurting anyone. One should imagine a group of close friends discussing what to do on a particular evening or expressing an opinion towards a book or song. In these occasions, in common conversation, many people find themselves saying a certain song is, “f***ing annoying” or saying a certain park is “s***y”. A person with a red face, loud bellowing voice inflamed by a fierce hatred for some person/place/thing is exactly not what I wish to aim my argument at. Because obviously when someone willfully wishes to offend and hurt someone as an end in itself because of revenge or some such kind of motivation is committing a sin [1 John 3:15] (regardless of whether or not he succeeds in offending someone). I also exclude the use of a word spoken with a sudden impulse; if someone stubs their toe and swears by reflex or habit, it wouldn’t be considered sinful at all whatsoever because a sin requires consent and an act done by reflex or habit has very little or no consent (though the will was used to form that habit and therefore the habit would be an effect of the sin but not the actual sin; as a scar or bruise is an effect of a fight but not the fight itself. A person may be very sorry for having a fight and still have the scar or bruise).
I will also exclude any extreme cases of a person who may have been raised with swearing as a normal part of language alongside the alphabet; without learning any kind of wrong in it, the kind that would swear when talking to a Pope without any realization or scruple. Though this man may not exist, I will not even address this idea even for the sake of argument. I will also not address the situation of crude language in writings of fiction, history or art. The most common use of swearing is in casual conversation concerning usual things without any hatred and this is the circumstance I wish to address in this writing.
- Against common arguments which are against swearing
There are three specific arguments I want to present that I don’t think prove anything in particular about swearing. These arguments are usually presented as proof against the act of swearing in and of itself as inherently bad and usually end up having to do with some remote effect or with some assumed intent which is usually not present.
- Swearing is unnecessary. This argument is a reaction against the false pro-swearing argument that says that swearing helps to express yourself. The anti-swearing person will say that it is unnecessary and therefore that we shouldn’t do it. It’s obvious the flaw in this argument: almost all words are unnecessary and yet we don’t stop saying many words just because of their unnecessity. If it was merely unnecessary to swear to express yourself, then it would be equally unnecessary as all the other words that someone may use to express themselves. Because both are interchangeable, then both are unnecessary and therefore both should be avoided? If this is true then all words which are interchangeable with each other (all words) should be avoided. Unnecessity on its own is not sufficient to commit an act to being sinful; neither is it sufficient for avoidance or confession.
- Swearing doesn’t glorify God. This argument rests on the idea that every act we commit can easily and quickly be traced back to the point at which it glorifies God. Most words we say don’t glorify God in the way that this argument supposes they should. Saying, ‘I want waffles,’ doesn’t glorify God by a long shot, yet it isn’t sinful. However, if the pro-swearers are right, that swearing helps with self expression, then this argument would fall flat on its face because self expression is beautiful and beauty glorifies God and raises the human mind to Heaven. If the argument that swearing allows us to express ourselves is wrong, then this argument still doesn’t show that it is sinful but only that swearing falls in line with all those other daily actions that don’t directly glorify God, like eating waffles.
- Swearing is scandalous to those who think swearing is evil. This argument says more about the proper times to swear or not than it does about the object of the action. It is true that if someone thinks swearing is evil, then the charitable thing to do is to not swear when they’re around. The only fault with this argument is that it doesn’t directly address why we shouldn’t swear at all. It doesn’t mention the inherent goodness or evil of swearing but only the potential bad effects. This argument simply can’t advocate for people not swearing in a group of like minded friends who all agreed that it wasn’t sinful. When St. Paul talked about scandal, he didn’t teach for all people to stop eating ‘unclean foods’ because some people thought it was evil but merely that those people who eat it should not do so in front of those who think it is morally objectionable.
- Swearing isn’t becoming/proper/classy. This argument usually has something to do with propriety and is brought up in discussions of the morality of swearing but only addresses the subject of whether or not it is rude to swear. Certainly it is rude/improper/unbecoming! But how on earth does rudeness correlate with immorality? It is certainly rude to wear a dirty t-shirt to a cocktail party and step on others’ shoes in a crowded place but nobody with a healthy conscience would go to confession for it. This is again another argument that isn’t faulty in its own way but is brought up in moral debates and fails to satisfy any claim made about morality.
- Against common arguments for swearing
These arguments usually consist of claims that arguments against swearing don’t exist. I will also go through the strongest arguments for swearing that I’ve heard.
- Scripture/Catechism hasn’t said anything is wrong with cursing. Scripture actually has a lot to say about the way we speak. I will point out all the relevant verses in the ‘On what Scripture says about the use of certain language’.
- Swearing doesn’t hurt anyone/They’re just words. This argument is flawed because we cannot claim that something doesn’t hurt anyone (or that all words are harmless) when whether or not it hurts someone is the thing being debated. If it is sinful, then it does hurt the speaker in a more important way than physical hurt could do to a person and hurts the listener by exposing them to sin. This argument is a simple claim on the conclusion without any actual points proving its own truthfulness.
- Swearing is an aid in communication. Swear words express a certain vulgarity of emotion in speech that allows the listener to feel that other words could not properly display. Swearing is an indication of sincerity. This argument fails to prove anything relevant to the moral nature of swearing. Even if it is true, if swearing happens to be sinful, better communication would not be a good enough reason to commit sin.
- Swearing releases anger. This is certainly true but again fails to prove anything relevant to the moral nature of the action. If swearing is proven sinful, these two arguments are as irrelevant as saying that murder releases anger. And if swearing is proven to be unsinful, then this argument would have paid no charge in that proof.
All other discussions taking place on the moral nature of swearing usually consist of the pro-swearer asking for the most legitimate argument against it. We will get to that next.
- My argument against the use of certain language
Because I want to present my argument in a certain apologetic way (that is, with the use of reason alone with little to no reliance on revelation and faith), I will exclude many of the common Scriptures on the issue for the moment (but not all the scriptures that are relevant). However, I will devote a section afterwards entirely to Scriptures that speak on the matter.
I trust that any Christian who is looking into the matter of the use of certain speech is entirely familiar with all the relevant scriptures regarding speech in general. Therefore, though there are many, I will only display one that aids in my specific cause. That is, Matthew 15:11, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but that which comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.”
I bring this verse up to mark the importance of safe speech. Certain Scripture has much to say about speech in general but this specific one talks about how speech may be the defiler of a person. In another sense, Scripture mentions how speech may be the indication of an already defiled person. But here, it speaks of it as the thing that defiles. In one instance, it may only be a symptom and we shouldn’t focus only on it, but in this verse, it seems to call enough attention to it that we ought to pay attention to speech itself. I bring this up specifically because I think that speech, just as an indicator of the state of one’s soul, can also be the thing that brings the soul to that state. Just as strict rules may be an indication of cleanliness in a place and also the cause of the cleanliness in the place.
The words we speak, if we perceive them to be dirty or vile, bring about a certain disposition of vileness or dirtiness (“What comes out of the mouth corrupts.”) It is obvious that within our culture, we regard swear words to be dirty or vile. When people typically use them in common conversation, they may do so without vile intent and may very well do so simply carelessly or for the mark of further sincerity or clarity. However, because these words are understood to be vile by the person who speaks them, they thereby submit themselves to a thing which is vile. Because they believe themselves to be doing something dirty (though maybe not entirely sinful) it puts them in a disposition of sinfulness and therefore an occasion of sin and crudeness. Just as speaking the words of the Psalms and singing the hymns at Mass give us a certain disposition of holiness and thankfulness towards God, so it is with swearing. Although they are not the actual thanks or glory themselves they are an occasion of thankfulness and giving glory. We do not really thank God by merely pronouncing the words but with a turning of our hearts towards Him and so we do not truly hate or damn a thing by merely speaking swear words but it is an occasion for such a turning. This is why we cannot totally judge someone who swears as certainly a wicked person because their heart and mouth may be in separate places. Just as we cannot know for certain that a weekly Mass-goer is a Saint because their will may not be turned towards God but their behavior may be. However someone surrounded by occasions to sin is more likely to sin than someone surrounded by occasions of grace.
So far I have not yet proven that swearing is sinful but merely that it is an occasion of sin. I would like to further clarify how it may be an occasion of sin before I move onto say that it is a sin itself. So far I have shown that saying swear words may give one the opportunity to supply the intent of the words he already speaks. There is another way that swearing could supply an occasion of sin. When someone submits himself to a certain vile thing (though it may be speech or manner or fashion) he puts in himself the disposition to do other vile things. Someone who swears may find that he is doubly tempted to gossip. When he swears lightly, taking his own words lightly, he may find it easier to take the Lord’s name lightly. When he swears fiercely with vileness and takes his words fiercely, he may find himself doubly tempted to act fiercely with vileness towards those subordinate to himself or towards his peers or towards his superiors. At what age do we find ourselves first swearing? It is as adolescents, trying out swearing as a way to practice a disposition of disrespect towards our authorities (parents). Just as a lover reads poetry to evoke the disposition of love, so the teenager swears so as to practice rebelliousness and disrespect. Just as we, “sing of the Lord’s goodness!” to evoke in us the love of God and to experience his love, so we may also use swears to do the opposite. Swearing is singing of the vileness of earth, the dirtiness of adultery, the slime of the earth…etc. It lowers our minds and hearts to earthly dirtiness and brings our minds away from God. This is the deepest way that it is an occasion of sin. Though I speak of an occasion of sin, I think it is now quite clear that to put oneself in that state of mind and heart and to bring about that occasion of sin is a sin in itself.
- On the gravity of swearing
It is of the smallest venial sins that come to us today, though it gives way to all other kinds of very serious sins of the tongue. Any such pathway should be taken seriously but because the thing in and of itself is not a great perversion but only a gateway to such perversions of speech it is not a grave sin. It must be remembered that the occasion that I am speaking about is specifically the most common occasion between friends discussing any manner of things and void of all hateful intent or directly sinful behavior. Other occasions, such as people in a rage or being specifically rude or offensive should be discussed in another way with different reasons. I would specifically put this as a lesser venial sin and at many (perhaps most) occasions it may not be a sin at all.
- On what Scripture says about the use of certain language
With these quotes from Scripture I aim to show the gravity of all words that we speak and to emphasize the importance it is to “keep a tight rein on your mouths.” This is specifically important in understanding the immorality of swearing.
“Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” [Ephesians 5:4]
“When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.” [Proverbs 10:19]
“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” [Luke 6:45]
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver. Like a gold ring or an ornament of gold is a wise reprover to a listening ear.” [Proverbs 25:11-12]
“Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!” [Psalm 141:3]
“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” [James 1:26]
“I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak.” [Matthew 12:36]
“The lips of the righteous know what is acceptable, but the mouth of the wicked, what is perverse.” [Proverbs 10:32]
- Other less important notes about swearing
- The subjectivity of language.
It would be quite difficult not to notice the certain subjectivity of language. Certainly the F-word is offensive to us English-speaking folk, but is the word inherently wrong? If it were divorced of all meaning, would it still be one of the worst words? If spoken by someone who didn’t know the meaning would it? Of course not. No random vibration of the larynx could be objectively evil in any real way. However, because of the meaning we gave the words, and because we speakers understand it to be as such, then it has the effects as mentioned and described above.
- On the natural offense at crude language
We may find it necessary to ask that if the sin is so minor, why is there such great natural offense at crude language? Why a cringe and wince when someone says such a word? Why do we guard children from hearing crude language as if the words are evil to the utmost extent? Why is this language so crude that we ask men not to speak that way with ladies present? I answer these questions with two primary explanations: Indication of a crude soul and the power of the tongue.
Both of the points are directly Scripturally supported. Bad language indicating the state of someone’s soul is what is spoken about in the Proverb 10:32. “The wicked man [speaks] what is perverse.” It doesn’t say that the wicked man is perverse because he speaks this way, but rather that he speaks this way because he is wicked. His speech is an indication (as well as a cause) of his wickedness. When someone speaks and we hear their wicked speech, our sensuality is offended (in the form of a wince or discomfort) because of the revelation of his internal dirtiness and not necessarily because of the dirtiness directly present. St. Ignatius of Loyola says that, “What comes out of a man’s mouth is an accurate representation of the state of his soul.” This reason accounts for our offense at the dirty language among men who speak that way habitually. It also explains why we might hear those old fashion folk talk about how you shouldn’t use bad language in front of ladies. Because it would be exposing them to the raw dirtiness of that crude soul. It would be like opening up a week-old diaper: We know it is there, but we don’t want to have to see it and smell it.
The reason we often guard so heavily against children speaking badly is precisely because of the kind of occasion that it is. Think of a child swearing analogous to a child running off in a crowded place. The mother is worried, not because the child is running but specifically because of the danger that could come to him by being lost. Or a child walking near to the edge of a cliff. The mother would scream not because he is walking around and being curious but because of the danger at hand. So it is with an occasion of sin, the danger at hand is too great not to guard against it with great carefulness.
“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” [James 3:5-8]