What's in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet…
- William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
It is very common among those who take their faith seriously to consider the use of vulgar language nothing more than a violation of social convention. After all vulgarity is just man assigned words. The same word could be assigned in another language and have no negative significance. Clearly, vulgarity is that. But is it more? Shakespeare’s famous phrase might suggest it’s nothing more. Though, perhaps we might see that vulgarity is more than just violating a mere social convention. For vulgarity conveyed by any other word would smell as foul.
What vulgarity is not
Let’s first makes some distinctions in what we mean here by vulgar. Let us leave out violations of the second commandment and their associated sins. For example, by vulgar we do not mean blasphemy, abuse of or disrespect for the Lord’s name. We don’t include cursing, by which we intend to wish someone to be damned to hell. Cursing also includes the casual misuse of terms associated with never-ending damnation because such use minimizes the reality of, and desensitizes people to, the horror of a human soul in hell. Neither do we mean the swearing of false or illicit oaths. Finally, we don’t include blasphemy against sacred people or places, which includes the denigration of people created in the image of God (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2142-2167 for a discussion of these grave sins). Vulgarity has a different nature.
The anatomy of vulgarity
We admitted that vulgar language does contravene social conventions, but let’s look now at whether it is more than that. We can do so by looking at the anatomy of vulgar language. If we consider it carefully, we will note that most vulgar language has to do with the bathroom or the bedroom. What these have in common is that they are aimed at the denigration of the dignity of the human person. Recourse to traditions about Satan’s fall can help to understand why.
Satan’s non serviam was said to have been his response to God’s revealing to the Angels at the moment of their creation, His plan to create men whom the angels were to serve. Not only this, but that God Himself would become one of them. Satan’s pride overcame him. When he looked at these creatures so much lower than himself, all he could focus on was how much inferior man is to angels. Satan was especially revolted at the material aspect of human nature; he would not lower himself to serve those with those “lowly, dirty” bodies. Much less could he permit his God to assume such a “disgusting” nature. Satan would not serve such a God; non serviam! Satan’s temptations, and most contemporary errors about the human person are aimed at the reduction of man to be nothing more than matter; to make him believe that he cannot rise above “the slime” from which God drew him.
Vulgarity which arises from the bathroom is complicit in this. These terms attempt to reduce persons to the least pleasant qualities of the material aspect of our nature. Their use has the effect of undermining the great dignity of each person, and humanity in general, in the minds of the users and hearers of vulgar language.
Vulgar terminology in terms of the bedroom serves a similar purpose. However, rather than point to the less presentable aspects of human nature, it is aimed at desecrating that which is holiest. St. Thomas Aquinas observed that in at least one way man is more like God than the angels. We are more like God in our capacity as spiritual persons to procreate because human procreation reflects the Father’s begetting the Son (Summa Theologiae, prima pars, q. 93, a. 3, co.). But Thomas suggests that this image applies only when the procreative act is done within the context of authentic love. St. John Paul II emphasizes this point when he ties man’s procreative capacity to his imaging God, in his analysis of Genesis 1:27-28 (see his theology of the body catechesis published in Man and Woman He Created Them). The fact that the marital act is the manner in which man is more like God than even the angels, shows how eminently holy sexual intercourse is meant to be; a fact to which Hebrews 13:4 attests (one cannot defile something that is not holy). Satan’s pride is what drives him to make the marital act the central target of his attacks against man and his dignity.
So vulgarity is indeed the violation of social conventions, but it is impossible to avoid the way it does so. The social conventions being rejected are there to protect us against the promotion of ideas that undermine the dignity of the human person. Vulgarity rebels against the God-given meaning of the human person by undermining human dignity. But let us also consider whether the argument that “vulgarity is simply a violation of social convention” would be a legitimate one, if that indeed was all it was.
We are beginning to see what underlies vulgarity. Vulgarity is not only the denigration of the human person; it is at its very root satanic rebellion. It is rebellion against the Fatherhood of God Who chose to create man in His image in a way more profound than the angels possess. It is also, therefore, rebellion against every institution that shares in the Father’s authority.
The anti-word from the Anti-word
When we consider the significance of words, we need to expand our minds beyond our 21st century understanding of words. The origin of human words is a divine Person, the Eternal Word. The Son of God is the Word by which all creation comes into being, has its order, its meaning and its ability to be understood. All human words, are finite and limited but they are intelligible because they participate in the Word, the Second Person of the Trinity.
The Son is the archetype for all of creation. All created being must reflect, albeit in varying degrees of perfection, the perfection of the Word of the Father. The Son eternally comes forth from the Father and in an eternal act of Self-emptying (i.e. humility) and thanksgiving, He returns Himself to the Father. After this pattern, all creation and all creatures come forth from God and are, also after the pattern of the Son, to return themselves to God in humility and thanksgiving.
We know that Satan refused to humble himself; he refused to be thankful. He chose to turn himself completely and irrevocably into the Anti-word. In choosing “not God,” Satan turned himself against God’s order of creation. In refusing to conform himself to Truth Himself, he became “the father of lies” (John 8:44). Satan is the Anti-word which means that he condemns himself to never ending separation from God. In a sense, he “creates” hell and it is, in part, through vulgar anti-words that he intends to populate his “own creation” with those creatures who God intends for never ending life with Him, men.
Vulgar words are in fact, anti-words whose purpose is rebellion against God’s Fatherhood with the goal of leading souls to Satan’s abode. To use such language is to cooperate with the purpose of the father of lies. Given this, we can be assured that using vulgarity in the way it is normally used: anger at an event, anger at persons, and in common conversation, is cooperating with Satan against God. It is sinful. But one may still ask the question: is there no legitimate use of these words?
Vulgar terms are just words with humanly assigned meanings. So can one say that the use of these words is not an intrinsic evil provided we are able to separate their use from their vulgar meaning? In other words, can one not even use vulgar words to explain their meaning to those who do not know? How about using them if one can do so to lead others to Christ?
Is it ever licit?
It is true that simply pronouncing a vulgar term outside of its destructive context is not an intrinsic evil. However, use of the terms in their context is always gravely sinful for the reasons explained above. But since the mere pronunciation of words is not intrinsically evil, we must address the above questions by exploring the phenomena of words and vulgarity in a bit more detail.
Persons are united with meaning through words
Let us assume for a moment that it is possible to use a vulgar term in a manner that is sufficiently removed from its context. Nevertheless, we can observe that there is a wide-spread tendency in most societies to avoid the use of such terms even in “forensic” circumstances, albeit this tendency is on the wane. It is more than simply superstitious taboo behind this tendency. What underlies it is an implicit recognition that once the term has its assigned meaning, one in some way, implicates himself with its meaning by use of it. This is not simply the case for the user, it is also the case for the hearer.
Words are more than simply signs. They are conductors of meaning, a meaning that interpenetrates the words themselves. When a word is received by a hearer, the word, its meaning and the expectation that this meaning corresponds with truth are all bound together in an inseparable way with the experience of hearing a word. If the meaning is contrary to truth or to the purity to which the person has conformed himself, then there will arise in him a visceral, negative response by which he will be moved to reject the word, its meaning and his association with it.
This is why people intent on authentic purity are so offended by being subjected to the use of vulgarity. It is the reason that St. Bernardine of Siena was justified in slapping the face of his fellow citizen when the latter purposefully subjected the saint to such abuse. To hear words as well as to say them is, in a very real way, to become one with them.
So it is not mere prudery to avoid the use of, or exposure to, vulgarity. It is a desire to remain pure and single hearted toward God. It is the rejection of all attempts by Satan and those cooperating with him (however unintentionally) to be implicated in thoughts that constitute rebellion against God or those legitimate human institutions that participate in His authority. And there are additional reasons to avoid such language.
The regular use of vulgarity has the effect of desensitizing those who speak it as well as of those who hear it, to the words and their meaning. This desensitization lessens one’s sensitivity to and awareness of these anti-words and the fact that they are so opposed to God, to the dignity of the human person, and to the order of creation. The use of words is for the purpose of education. The ultimate good and goal of education is the formation of the human person in truth and the ordering of the soul to the good. Purposefully, or not, desensitizing another person to words that convey ideas contrary to the true and the good is an act of evil. It is evil for the reason that desensitization leaves the person less on-guard against demonic temptation, and so increases the risk he will succumb to the temptation. Desensitizing someone who has labored to become pure is a grave violation of charity.
In such a way, desensitizing someone to words intended to convey evil is an act of scandal. Scandal comes from the Greek term for a rock that causes one to stumble. In other words, to scandalize does not mean to shock or surprise; it means to lead someone into sin. The use of vulgarity by the Christian disciple not only desensitizes (an act of scandal in itself), it also suggests the legitimacy of the use of vulgar language. When we use vulgarity, we are misleading people; we are leading them away from God rather than leading them to Christ. This is more fully an act of scandal than is desensitization.
The tongue that forms the pillow which will receive The Father’s Precious Word, Our Eucharistic Lord, cannot be the same tongue that willfully cooperates as a disciple of the Anti-word by the use of his anti-words
While there may be very unique cases in which the verbalization of a vulgar term may be justified (e.g. when compelled by rightful authority during testimony with respect to an exact quote in a court of law) assuming all context is removed and the chance of scandal is avoided, vulgarity must be rejected as a whole. The Christian disciple is one because he has completely committed himself to leading others to the Master. We do so by conforming ourselves in thought and deed, in word and action to Jesus Christ. We must be pure as He is pure. The world must be able to see Christ in us, His disciples, if it is to find His message credible. In all we have said, there is no room for the use of vulgarity by the Christian disciple. Only Anti-christ could justify the claim that one can do evil that good could come from it.