On one particular occasion, a marine used some very bad language and mentioned the name of Our Lord very disrespectfully. The chaplain happened to be nearby and overheard the marine. He jerked the young man to his feet and forcefully repeated the same words he'd just heard. The rest of the marines in the group were astounded.
"Now you've heard me say it, marine," said the chaplain sternly, adding, "And I'm a priest. How does it sound to you?"
The marine was shamefaced and silent.
"It ought to turn your stomach," the chaplain said, and he left. His words had the intended effect because there was a marked decrease in profanity in the unit from that time on.
The Second Commandment reads, "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain." This commandment obliges us to always speak of God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints and sacred persons, places and things with reverence.
To the surprise of many, the Second Commandment also obliges us to take oaths truthfully and to be faithful in fulfilling promissory oaths and vows. Like all the commandments, much more is implied than what is mentioned on the face of it. What is implied here is what is forbidden — profanity, blasphemy, cursing and carelessness or deceit in taking oaths and vows.
The Protestant misinterpretation of this commandment is yet another anomaly that has crept into Catholic thought. Many modern Catholics conflate profanity, cursing and something known as vulgar language.
Vulgar language, in and of itself, is not necessarily sinful. Actually, vulgar language is simply a cultural thing. What is considered vulgar in one culture or society isn't even noticed in another. Vulgar language is determined by so-called polite society. Although vulgar language should be avoided, it isn't necessarily sinful. It can be sinful in certain situations, such as when it's used in the presence of the opposite sex or children. Because it's sinful in some situations, it's best to avoid vulgar language altogether.
This begs the question, then, of what profanity and cursing really are.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that "the Second Commandment forbids the abuse of God's name, i.e., every improper use of the names of God, Jesus Christ ... the Virgin Mary and all the saints." We violate this, usually in a venial way, when we (for example) abuse these holy names to express anger or surprise.
Cursing, on the other hand, is actually what its name implies — the invoking of evil upon a person, place or thing. It's sinful to curse animals or things, chiefly because of the uncontrolled anger or impatience involved. It's sinful to curse a human being because that person is made in the image and likeness of God.
Another action forbidden by this commandment is blasphemy. The Catechism says the following concerning blasphemy:
It consists in uttering against God, inwardly or outwardly, words of hatred, reproach or defiance — in speaking ill of God, in failing in respect toward Him in one's speech, in misusing God's name. … The prohibition of blasphemy extends to language against Christ's Church, the saints and sacred things. … Blasphemy is contrary to the respect due God and His holy name. It is itself a grave sin.
In modern parlance, we often confuse oaths and vows. An oath is calling upon God to witness the truthfulness of what we say. We must be very careful about using an oath, and it may be used only under strict conditions, such as when we have a good reason for taking it, we're sure we're speaking the truth and we don't have a sinful intention. The glory of God, the good of our neighbor or our own personal good are valid reasons for taking an oath.
Perjury is thought of strictly as a legal term, but it's theological as well. In law, perjury is simply telling a lie under oath. In theology, there is the added evil of asking God to be a witness to a lie — even if we don't use God's name as part of the oath. The abuse of an oath is always a mortal sin. People who like to tell fanciful stories and then say "I swear to God" are committing mortal sin each time they do this.
Returning to the Catechism, we see that promissory oaths are promises "made to others in God's name [to] engage the Divine honor, fidelity, truthfulness and authority. They must be respected in justice. To be unfaithful to them is to misuse God's name and, in some way, make God out to be a liar."
A vow is a free and deliberate promise, made to God, by which a person binds himself, under pain of sin, to do something especially pleasing to God. The most common vows are marriage vows and vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. In light of this, it is suggested that you revisit the vows you've taken — marriage vows for those in that particular vocation, religious vows for those in that state. You might be surprised at what happens when you make an examination of conscience.
Now, let me briefly change the subject. Those of you who read these articles weekly and find them nutritious for the soul may want to do some solid studying on your own. I'd like to make a suggestion.
The late servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., was a personal friend of Pope St. John Paul II. Through Cdl. Ratzinger, the Holy Father asked Fr. Hardon to come up with a course to help the Catholic faithful learn more about the Faith. That course, originally written for Mother Teresa and her spiritual daughters, evolved into two courses: Basic Catechism and Advanced Catechism.
They are required courses for members of the Marian Catechist Apostolate, of which I am a proud member — but you don't have to be a member to take them. If you're interested, check out the Basic Catholic Catechism Course today. Or you can call (608) 782-0011 to talk to the folks at the Marian Catechist Apostolate during regular business hours.