How Wrong is Swearing in the Eyes of the Church?

Q: Swearing is a part of everyday life for many people. How wrong is swearing in the eyes of the Church?

If you read through all the moral instruction in the bible, you’ll never find anything like, “Thou shalt not say #%$&.” Why? Because language changes over the centuries and across cultures. Words considered deeply offensive in one time and place might be perfectly respectable in another. The commandments do say, beautifully summarized by Jesus himself in Matthew 22:39, to love your neighbor as yourself. How do you feel when someone speaks abusively to you or in your presence? Coarseness tends to devalue the listener and impede rather than enhance communication. Is it a serious sin? As in all things, it depends on the context. If you’re venting to friends after work about a stressful day, maybe it isn’t. If you’re taking out the stress of that day on your child, maybe it is. What’s really at stake is not any particular word choice but rather the failure to love and respect yourself and others through your speech.

What we know as the second commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” is a different issue. God’s name is a symbol for God’s very self – we remind ourselves of this every time we make the sign of the cross “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We should always speak God’s name with respect, neither trivializing it nor misusing it, lest we desensitize ourselves to its power. Carelessness in this regard has become extremely common in our culture and is now widely accepted in the media – but the person of faith knows better. Don’t let this bad habit creep into your speech.

Neela Kale

Neela Kale is a writer and catechetical minister based in the Archdiocese of Portland. She served with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Mexico and earned a Master of Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology. Some of her best theological reflection happens on two wheels as she rides her bike around the hills of western Oregon.