Many of the debates that erupt in the Catholic blogosphere revolve around whether something is an objective moral issue or a matter of prudential judgement, and one of the terms that gets batted around is “consequentialism.” On the one hand, it’s a principle of Catholic ethics that the ends never justify the means. On the other hand, both in terms of personal culpability and in terms of the objective evil of an act, the Church puts quite a premium on motive. In some cases, such as incidents of “double effect,” the motive may change the objective nature of an act. So when Jean Valjean steals his loaf of bread (we’ll set aside breaking the glass or holding a gun on the baker), he’s acting in accordance with Catholic ethics: he’s not stealing because his family is starving and will die without food. When Sr. Simplice “lies” to Javert, she’s not really “lying” according to Catholic teaching–He asks if she is alone in the room, and she says “Yes”. As Obi Wan Kenobi would put it, Valjean is “in a manner of speaking” not in the room because he’s hiding. Javert asks, “Have you seen the criminal Jean Valjean,” and she says, “no.” She’s not lying: she has only seen Mayor Madeleine whom she knows to be a saintly man.
So we had the Great Torture Debate: is waterboarding “torture”? Does the urgency of a “ticking time bomb” scenario take away from the nature of torture the way starvation takes away from the nature of theft?
The Great Lying Debate: If masking the truth the way Sr. Simplice does in _Les Miserables_ or the way Christians did to protect Jews from Nazis (or Catholics from the English in the Elizabethan era) mean it’s OK to do “undercover work”? And if it’s OK for “authorities” to do “undercover” work, what about self-proclaimed activists and investigative journalists?
Does a “Celebrity priest” with an “important ministry” have the right to disobey a legitimate order from his bishop and/or the superiors in his order for a higher cause?
The Great Christopher West Debate: Do West’s extrapolations of JPII’s “Theology of the Body” constitute advocacy of lust?
In all these debates, two concepts that keep coming up are “consequentialism” and the slippery slope. In some cases, such as West, critics have argued that his teaching will lead to dangerous trajectories, and apparently they’re right. Recently, an article in a major Catholic site proposed that the best way to deal with the temptation of pornography is to indulge it until one gets burned out (the link is to one of Kevin O’Brien’s articles on the subject, not the article itself). In all these debates, one side is saying, “But we’re doing it for a good reason,” and the other side is saying, “That’s consequentialism.”
Well, whatever the merits of whichever side in those previous debates, the voices warning of consequentialism have had their fears realized: Catholics are now arguing on the Internet in defense of swearing.
That’s right. “Do not take the Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain” doesn’t apply if you’re doing it for a good reason, such as declaring Michael Voris to be full of excrement.
In one of Michael Voris’s most recent podcasts–and that’s why I preceded this article with a discussion of my “take” on Voris–he apparently made an argument in favor of Catholic monarchy. This of course ruffled a lot of modernists’ feathers, and my advice there is for people to brush up on St. Thomas Aquinas’s _Treatise on Kingship_, Bl. Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, Benedict XVI’s _Caritas in Veritate_, and maybe some Gilson and von Hildebrand, then reconsider Voris’s arguments.
So, a blogger named Calah Alexander (and how one person gets “famous” versus another in the blogosphere is beyond me, given that I’ve been doing this now for almost 10 years) “critiqued” (and I use the word loosely) Voris’s argument. The gist of her actual content is that her parents aren’t Catholic, and she loves her parents, and they should have the right to vote, and non-Catholics are good people, too. Uh-huh. She’s arguing from a completely different world view than the one Voris is coming from. Yes, the very definition of Natural Law is that non-Catholics should be able to know and accept Natural Law without accepting Catholic Revelation. However, is it really practical that a non-Catholic knows *every* aspect of Natural Law? How many non-Catholics, for example, support the notion of making contraception illegal? The other issue she touches on is the old “cradle Catholic” versus convert debate. In both cases, she unwittingly undermined her own argument.
Her post starts with that ubiquitous and highly offensive textspeak abbreviation, “OMG.” A commentor identifying herself as “KAT” said, “You lost me after the first three letters. What good come [sic] follow?” It gets worse. She proceeded to call Voris’s beliefs (and mine) by a crude word meaning excrement. Then she says “Don’t excuse my French, because I totally mean that word. . . . ” So this has led to a sideshow of debating the use of profanity. There are so many people foaming at the mouth to “Get Voris” that they’re not only ignoring but excusing and even supporting Alexander’s use of profanity. According to this guy, Voris’s use of online demagoguery is worse than Alexander taking the Lord’s name in vain.
Indeed, very little of the brouhaha has revolved around her taking the Lord’s name in vain–it mostly pertains to her use of a certain Anglo-Saxon word for execrement. Now, it’s interesting that, as a textbook on language from my wife’s college studies that I often refer to points out, we consider Latin-based words for body parts and functions to be OK, but Anglo-Saxon based words are considered obscene because they’re more guttural. A case may be made that it’s rather silly to consider “sh–” to be a bad word *in its proper context.* Indeed, the MPAA rates a movie differently if sh– refers to manure or the f word is used in its proper definition than if these words are used as mere expletives.
Patrick Madrid invited Alexander to come on his show and defend her use of profanity. By her own admission, she did a bad job on the show (I haven’t heard it), and in her follow up on her blog (“D-word” right in the title), and Patrick came right out with pointing out that it’s sinful, and she didn’t have much of a response, so she tried to make a response on her blog.
Alexander’s points in defense of profanity are, basically:
a. “There’s no such thing as a bad word”: Perhaps not in its proper context. “Hell” is not a bad word. Even telling someone, “If you proceed on that course of action, you put yourself in danger of Hell” is not bad–it is quite good; it’s a spiritual work of mercy (one for which Michael Voris often gets lambasted). “Damn” is not a bad word if used in its proper context. Certainly, the Lord’s Name is not a “bad word,” and one of the reasons why it’s wrong to take the Lord’s Name in vain is that you’re trivializing it.
Alexander’s argument is basically the same as that of people who say, “God made all things good, so cocaine and marijuana are OK.” They may be OK in the *proper* use God intended them for, but that doesn’t mean He intended them for “getting high.”
I’ve relayed the story before of the time when it was announced that Hasbro took away the comic book license for GI Joe from a company called “Devil’s Due.” I said on a message board that I’d always been uncomfortable with the name. A member who was a secular liberal said, sarcastically, “You do know they don’t mean it literally, don’t you?” I said, “Well, if they don’t, then they’re trivializing spiritual things.” “Oh, I never thought of it that way.” Taking the Lord’s name in vain can mean taking to oneself authority that belongs to God (declaring something worthy of damnation) or using profound concepts in a manner that loses all meaning.
It gets to the dilemma Flannery O’Connor illustrates with the Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”: when most people exclaim “God” or “Jesus” as a form of profanity, then it sounds profane when someone exclaims in authentic prayer.
This leads to another of Alexander’s arguments:
b. She claims there’s nothing wrong with exclaiming a curse word when one stubs one’s toe, etc., because everyone does it and it’s so common. No, as above, that’s still trivializing the concept, it’s trivializing the emotion. Yes, I am the first to note that the Church teaches that habit can mitigate culpability for a sin, but it’s still a sin. You may not have to confess every specific incident of cussing if you have a total potty mouth, but you should still confess the fact that you have the bad habit to be a potty mouth, and you should strive to overcome that habit, not justify it!
And what’s really wrong about cursing is the emotion behind it (see Matthew 5:26). It would be *ideal* if people had such a habit of virtue and such inner peace that they lose something and immediately say “St. Anthony, help me,” or they stub their toe and immediately say, “I offer this pain up with Jesus on the Cross.” It would be great if we could *not* react in anger to life’s inconveniences. It would be great if we could approach hardship with peace and serenity.
c. Alexander claims that particular words are not inherently profane, and if everyone used the same words, the new ones would be the new curse words. She seems obsessed with excrement, but I’ll use the example of “heck” instead. According to Alexander, if everyone started saying “What the heck,” that would eventually take on the same meaning as referring to Hades. Perhaps she is right, but in our *current* language usage, consciously opting for a less-offensive term will show some level of self-control and build up everybody.
d. Alexander says that some of her critics have said that it causes scandal for Catholic bloggers to use profanity. She doesn’t see how this is possible. She also says that “causes scandal” is a shorthand for people who don’t really have an argument. No, sorry, avoiding scandal is like a kindergarten level principle of Catholic morality, and to dismiss that concern is to negate the argument that started it all–that she objected to Voris a) saying non-Catholics don’t know as much about morality as Catholic do, and b) Voris supposedly saying or implying that there are areas of Catholic teaching that converts are a little weak on.
Alexander also seems to ignore the fact that swearing breeds swearing. Her kids will grow up to swear because they hear their mother doing it–that’s called scandal. She’s setting an example of sin for others. Conversely, setting a habit of saying a less offensive term, or not saying anything at all, or saying something nice, helps build up virtue in others. I’ve always insisted that of “sex, violence and language” in the media, offensive language is the worst because it’s the most easily replicated, and it sticks in one’s head.
I feel like I’m missing something, but it strikes me that in making her case, Alexander never one refers to the Bible or the Catechism. If the Commandments–2nd, 5th, 6th, and 8th in particular–aren’t enough reason not to use profanity, vulgarity and obscenity, what about Matthew 5? Colossians 3:8, Ephesians 4:29, Matthew 15:11, James 3:6-13, Ephesians 5:4, Matthew 12:36-37, 2 Timothy 2:16, Proverbs 21:23, Psalm 19:14, Luke 6:45, Colossians 4:6, Proverbs 4:24, Proverbs 6:12, Psalm 10:7, etc.?
And then there’s the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Catechism 2149 is particularly useful in rebutting Alexander’s “defense”:
“Oaths which misuse God’s name, though without the intention of blasphemy, show lack of respect for the Lord. The second commandment also forbids magical use of the divine name. “
If words aren’t important, why does the Catechism say that eve one’s name is sacred? (2159).
This post is running long, but there’s a related issue I hoped to talk about, where a popular blog “Chicks on the Right” nearly lost its Facebook page for use of profanity, and “conservatives” were jumping to the defense of these potty-mouthed bloggers.
It’s shameful. Chesterton once said, “Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”