Moral Briefs – Chapter XLVII – Profanity

cover of the ebook 'Moral Briefs' by Father John Henry StapletonProfanity is not a specific sin. Under this general head come all blasphemy, false, rash, unjust and unnecessary oaths, rash and violated vows, and cursing – called profanity, because in each case the name of God is profaned, that is to say, is made less holy, by its application to unworthy objects and in unbecoming circumstances; profanity, because it has to do with the Holy Name, and not profanation, which looks to sacred things. Although language lends itself to many devices and is well nigh inexhaustible in its resources, this category of sins of profanity embraces about all modes of offending against the Holy Name, and consequently against the Second Commandment.

We have already examined the different species of profanity. But it is not always easy to classify certain utterances and expressions that savour of profanity, to determine the specific nature of their malice, especially the guilt incurred by the speaker. First of all, the terms used are often distorted from their original signification, or require that words left understood be supplied; as they stand, they are often as meaningless to the speaker as to the general uninitiated public. To get at the formal malice of such utterances is still more difficult, for it becomes necessary to interpret the intentions of the speaker. Thus, in one case, words that contain no evident insult to God may be used with all the vehemence of profanity, to which guilt is certainly attached; in another, the most unholy language may be employed in ignorance of its meaning, with no evil intent, the only danger of malice being from habit, passion or scandal.

This brings us to consider certain ejaculatory or exclamatory expressions such as: God! good God! Lord! etc., employed by persons of very different spiritual complexion. Evidently, these words may be employed in good and in evil part; whether in one or the other, depends on the circumstances of their using.

They may proceed from piety and true devotion of the heart, out of the abundance of which the mouth speaks. Far from being wrong, this is positively good and meritorious.

If this is done through force of habit, or is the result of levity, without the least interior devotion or affection, it is a mitigated form of profanity. To say the least, no honor accrues to God from such language and such use of His name; and where He is concerned, not to honor Him is dangerously near dishonoring Him. If contempt of God or scandal result from such language, the offense may easily be mortal.

Finally, excited feelings of passion or wrath vent themselves in this manner, and here it is still more easy to make it a grievous offending. About the only thing that can excuse from fault is absolute indeliberation.

Again, without implying any malediction, prescinding altogether from the supernatural character of what they represent, as ejaculations only, we come across the use of such words as hell, devil, damnation, etc. Good ethics condemn such terms in conversation; hearing them used people may be scandalized, especially the young; if one uses them with the mistaken idea that they contain blasphemy, then that one is formally guilty of blasphemy; finally, it is vulgar, coarse and unmannerly to do so. But all this being admitted, we do not see any more moral iniquity in the mention of these words than of their equivalents: eternal fire, Satan, perdition, etc. We do not advise or encourage the use of such terms, but it sometimes jars one’s sense of propriety to see people hold up their hands in holy horror at the sound of these words, as if their mention were something unspeakably wicked, while they themselves would look fornication, for instance, straight in the face without a shudder or a blush.

Profanity is certainly a sin, sometimes a grievous sin; but in our humble opinion, the fiat of self-righteous Pharisaism to the contrary notwithstanding, it is a few hundred times oftener no sin at all, or a very white sin, than the awful crime some people see in it. If a fellow could quote classical “Mehercule,” and Shakespearean cuss-words, he would not perhaps be so vulgar as to say “hell.” But not having such language at his command, and being filled with strong feelings that clamor for a good substantial expression, if he looks around and finds these the strongest and only available ones, and uses them, – it is necessity and human nature, we wot, more than sacrilegious profanity. It were better if his speech were aye, aye and nay, nay; but it does not make it look any better to convict him of the blackest sin on the calendar just because he mentioned a place that really exists, if it is hot, and which it is well to have ever before our eyes against the temptations of life.