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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 29 Oct 2001

The 6th commandment QUESTION from Patrick Bell August 28, 2000 Most Catholics that I talk to seem to think that using four letter words are at the most a venial sin. I would like to know your opinion on this since I believe that the usage of such language can be a mortal sin in many instances.
A fellow member of our parish seems to believe that the usage of such words is not a sin at all and asked me to prove it to him.
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius, O.L.S.M. on November 19, 2000 Dear Mr. Bell:
I think you asked this question before, but in a slightly different way.... I will answer this again, also in a slightly and perhaps more thorough way...
There is an article either in This Rock or in Envoy that speaks to this very question. Unfortunately, I cannot locate the article at this time.
I believe the commandment you speak of is the Second Commandment:
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. You have heard that it was said to the men of old, You shall not swear falsely.. But I say to you, Do not swear at all. You can find the teaching on this in the Catechism in three sections from Nos 2142-2167: The URLs to view this section of the Catechism are:
I. Name of the Lord is Holy II. TAKING THE NAME OF THE LORD IN VAIN III. The Christian Name
For the purposes of this Forum I'll quote the IN BRIEF summary of these sections:
2160 O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth (Ps 8:1)!
2161 The second commandment enjoins respect for the Lord's name. The name of the Lord is holy.
2162 The second commandment forbids every improper use of God's name. Blasphemy is the use of the name of God, of Jesus Christ, of the Virgin Mary, and of the saints in an offensive way.
2163 False oaths call on God to be witness to a lie. Perjury is a grave offence against the Lord who is always faithful to his promises.
2164 Do not swear whether by the Creator, or any creature, except truthfully, of necessity, and with reverence (St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, 38).
2165 In Baptism, the Christian receives his name in the Church. Parents, godparents, and the pastor are to see that he be given a Christian name. The patron saint provides a model of charity and the assurance of his prayer.
2166 The Christian begins his prayers and activities with the Sign of the Cross: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
2167 God calls each one by name (cf. Isa 43:1).
From the teaching of the Catechism we can conclude that Blasphemy, which is inwardly or outwardly making utterance against God -- words of hatred, reproach, or defiance, speaking ill of God, failing respect toward Him in speech, and misusing God's name, is grave sin. Language against the Church, the saints, and sacred things also constituted blasphemy.
Some specific examples can be:

Abusing the name of God, or of any sacred name (such as the Name of Mary, the angels, and saints) is sin. When we stub our toe and say God that hurts or Jesus, Joseph, and Mary that hurt we are most likely not really praying to God or asking for the saints intercessions. Rather the utterance is one of emotional release due to the pain and perhaps an act of self-control to avoid using curses. Another example is the phrase, Well, God (usually pronounced, well Gaaawd) as an expression of of course that is true or dah etc. Unless we are truly evoking God or the saints names in prayer and devotion, this is abusing the name of God and the saints.

Misusing God's name by making promises in the name of God and breaking the promise is a sin. This is a form of making God a liar. I promise on the Bible (in God's name) that I will pick you up at 3 o'clock. If we break this promise we make God a liar since we have brought God into our promise thereby making Him a guarantor of our promise. (Cf. 1 John 1:10)

Misusing God's name in oaths, or in magical uses is sin. Even if blasphemy is not intended, evoking God's name disrespectfully in an oath is sin, as is using God's name magically. I promise God I will love you in the morning if you have sex with me tonight is a misuse of an oath. Using God's name magically is a COMMON practice. Often we throw out the name of Jesus as if it is a magical bullet that will ward off all evil. Or we use the name of Jesus like a talisman to get out way, instead of humbly submitting to God's will.

Making false oaths in God's name (lying under oath) is sin. This involves perjury or false witness or other lying under an oath. Like a promise, when we make an oath affirming truthfulness we invoke God's truthfulness as a pledge of our own. If we lie we are calling on God to be witness to a lie.

Using God's name for trivial matters is sin. This can involve using God's name in such trivial ways as God, it is hot when we are not really intending to talk to God about the heat. It can also be seen in the careless and causal use of God's name in humor.
The bottom line is that God's name is to be respected at the highest levels. St. Augustine said: [God's] name is great when spoken with respect for the greatness of his majesty. God's name is holy when said with veneration and fear of offending him.
And this principle applies also to Mary and all the Saints.
But that is not all. This principle applies to all of our names too. God calls everyone by name (Isa 43:1; Jn 10:3) Thus everyone's name is sacred. Our names deserves and demands respect as a sign of the dignity of the one who bears that name and who was created in dignity by God.
This is one reason why gossip, calumny, detraction, libel, slander, defamation of character, false witness, etc. are all such serious sins -- these sins destroy the good name of a person. These sins are a form of murder for they lead to or accomplish the death of the good reputation of one's name. We need to be real cautious in how we use other people's names.
In addition we learn from St. Ignatius of Loyola that we are not to swear not only by the name of God, but also by the name of any creature.
All these things above constitute grave sin.
But what about cussing (that is, using cuss words that are not using God's name or the name of Mary or the Saints, or some other pejorative against the Church and sacred things)?
Although the use of cuss words may not constitute grave sin, or perhaps not even venial sin in some cases, the use of such words may indeed be a violation of social conventions.
As Christians we are to be counter-cultural. We are to set an example. He taught that: Using cuss words hardly builds up. And often times those who are noted cussers are dominated by that habit. We are not to be dominated by anything other than Christ.
Paul also says: (1COR 9:22) To the weak I became weak, to win over the weak. I have become all things to all, to save at least some.
I remember one time just before I went into mendicant cloister I was working at Kinko's. I was known as the resident religious nut of course. One day in utter frustration over something I used a cuss word. The WHOLE SHOPPE took notice: John-Paul, boy, I never heard you use such language!!!
My Christian testimony received a small blot that day. Granted it was only a small blot since the mistake was not repeated, but it was a blot nevertheless.
We have to be careful in using cuss words as it might scandalize others.
And finally, St. Paul teaches us:
PHIL 4:8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Is cussing something that is pure, lovely, gracious, and excellent? And in case anyone wishes to rationalize this verse away saying Paul is talking about thinking and not saying, that which one says, is what one is thinking.
This teaching of Paul's is backed up by the very strong words of St. James:
JMS 1:26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, his religion is vain. Hope this gives you some reason to give your friend to be curcumspect of his language.
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