And Consequentialism Has Come Down to This: Catholic Bloggers Defending Swearing

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.”



10 responses to “And Consequentialism Has Come Down to This: Catholic Bloggers Defending Swearing

  1. I still do not really see a problem with the colloquial allegory betw Teen excetement and political or religious lies that harm others.

    But yes, any oath that refers to God, is a prayer. And should be treated ass such.

    If it is any consolation, Calah is on a journey from a life of profound sinfulness to grace. Ten years ago, she would have been making the same argument about hard narcotics: and in fact, did, just before she realized she did not want to give birth to her first child in jail.

  2. I didn’t mention taking the Lord’s name in vain because I understand that it’s a serious offense against God. I don’t think it’s okay. I just found that distinction tangential to my post, particularly since I mentioned that point on Patrick’s show. As far as the “OMG” goes, I have never considered letters to be the same thing as taking God’s name in vain. But given the response to that use, I’m feeling a little uneasy about that stance and am re-thinking it.

    You badly misconstrued every argument I made. I’d appreciate it if you’d either directly quote or encourage your readers to read it for themselves, since you either didn’t understand what I was saying or willfully misrepresented it.

    Ted, while I appreciate your defense, I would never have made that argument about hard narcotics. I knew and know that they are sinful, dreadfully so.

    What I love most of all about this post and all the comments “disagreeing” with me about cursing and Michael Voris is the charity behind them. It’s that scorched-earth mentality that drives me to run and hide from extremely Orthodox Catholics. This is not the love I experienced, when I was in the depths of sin, that brought me to Catholicism. If it had been, I’d have walked away without a second thought.

    • Also, I applaud you for rethinking your position, but I’m totally dumbfounded about this “scorched earth”, “no love” business. First my post is typical of *all* my posts an all my conversations. I’m loquacious. I beat a topic to death. Second, you’re the one who referred to what any of us consider a basic principle of Catholic political thought, the position of St. Thomas Aquinas and just about every Pope before the 1960s, as a pile of excrement, and then you get all huffy about other people being uncharitable and “scorched earth”?

  3. I felt uneasy about even linking to a post with swear words in it, much less quoting directly. I don’t like giving Satan that much power (not saying you’re Satan, but your words give the demons power).
    I don’t see how I misconstrued your arguments.
    It is ironic you’re talking about love and charity in defending uncharitable language. It honestly makes no sense to me. And I’ve *seen* the effects of profanity on families. I have 0 tolerance for it. I’m sorry you consider it uncharitable. I consider it very charitable not just to the person engaging in it but to the people who have to listen to it. My wife and I are both the sort of people who make no secret of our 0 tolerance for swearing, and our secular friends and acquaintances respect that and respect that we’re consistent about our faith.
    There’s that old story about the woman with all the Christian and pro-life bumper stickers who cusses somebody out at a stop light, and gets pulled over by a cop. The woman says, “Officer, did I do something wrong?” The cop says, “License and registration. I have reason to believe this car was stolen.” The woman hands her license & registration & proves it’s her car. The cop says, “Sorry, ma’am. I saw your bumper stickers, and heard you swearing, and thought the car must have been stolen.”

  4. “Nothing is more dangerous for beginners in the spiritual life, than to wish to play the master, and to guide and convert others.” –St Philip Neri

    “Beginners should look after their own conversion and be humble, lest they should fancy they had done some great thing, and so should fall into pride.” St Philip Neri

    Think of these the next time you hear one of these bloggers speak with authority and pray

  5. I found nothing in the New Catechism that states that English vulgar words are sinful. I did find many sins against the second commandment like blasphemy, perjury and the abuse of God’s name (paragraphs 2146-2149) No where in the sections dealing with the 6th, 8th and 9th commandments were “cuss words” discussed.

    I have a little examination of conscience booklet written by Fr. Altier:

    Mortal Sins concerning speech: Curses, wishing evil upon another person, serious slander, making an oath in a secret society, sacrilegious confession, blasphemy, perjury, false witness under oath, detraction that harms a person’s reputation, violation of confidence without good reason.

    Venial Sins concerning speech: Using the Lord’s name lightly (surprise or anger), cursing thoughtlessly, using the names of holy persons irreverently, USING VULGAR OR INAPPROPRIATE LANGUAGE, telling irreverent jokes, speaking poorly of The Church, irreverent use of Scripture, lying, gossiping, spreading rumors, hypercriticalism, rash judgements, being suspicious, failure to restore the good name of a person one injured, cheating, exaggerating, bragging, flatter, telling or listening to impure or vulgar jokes.

  6. Using vulgar or inappropriate language *in its proper context* is venially sinful. Using vulgar language *towards* another person is a violation of the 5th Commandment, and it doesn’t need to be in the Catechism: it’s in the Bible.
    In other words, saying “I just took a s#$%” instead of “I just went to the bathroom” is venially sinful.
    Telling another person, “You are full of s$@#” is mortally sinful. It involves speaking against their dignity as a human being.

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