Friday, August 27, 2010

Thought While Shaving: Why I Cuss (not Curse) and Can’t Imagine it’s a Sin.

  Feast of St. Monica, Mother of St. Augustine*   
             Now that I’ve been writing this blog for five years, it’s time I…well not make a confession…but make an affirmative statement.  I cuss.  It’s a habit I got from my father who was an eloquent cusser.  I think I know about as much theology as the average guy who took four straight years of theology and philosophy from Ernie…and I’ll tell you, I still can’t imagine anyone thinking use of swear words is a sin.  I exempt denunciations that invoke the name of the Son of God for expletives.  But let me ask you this?
What’s wrong with letting it go with a string of cliché imprecations when you stub your toe in the dark or are demoted at work or miss a train when the next one won’t be arriving for an hour and you will miss luncheon with someone who wants to introduce you to a potential client? 
           Do you think not swearing is virtuous?  Saying “heck” instead of hell?  Forget it.   
            Oh I admit that use of swear words is a breach of etiquette; they shouldn’t be used in front of children.  But let’s get this straight: What I categorize as swear words are not words of obscenity that degrading sexual congress.  Although, friends, I’ve got to say this: When telling a story to adults…and quoting someone who for effect used an obscenity…I don’t find it a mortal or even venial sin to reproduce his conversation.  And I find it sanctimonious as hell (there I go again) when somebody—usually a woman—simulates going into a dead faint because I describe someone I despise as…putting it euphemistically…a person of illegitimate birth or a male whose mother is a female canine.  
           The wildest concoction of political correctness is this.  Suppose I say about a miscreant who has verbally assailed me as— 
           “That person of illegitimate birth!”  Or “that guy whose mother is a female canine!” 
         That would pass the respectability test but also produce exchange of  strange looks from others at the table but that’s it.  They wouldn’t faint away with shock…but why should they look askance, look around the room and hope no one overheard… regard me as indelicate and a boor if I say— 
         “Do you know what that officious  bastard wrote in The New York Times today?  He tried to dress up research in embryonic stem cells as vital to saving lives when he knows—fully knows—that adult stem cells can do the job. You know what?  That sonuvabitch simply glories in defending an act of snuffing out lives!” 
        The fact remains that I feel better when I say this…and that’s important—important to let repressed steam be released…a safety valve that spares bottled up blood pressure. 
        Let’s be clear. Cussing fate with a string of denunciatory colorful words is different from cursing where you call down evil on someone.  Or invoke God to strike someone dead. That’s altogether different. I would judge that to say “goddammit” is different than slowly pronouncing “God damn so-and-so!”  Although I’ve been known to do that as well.  But seriously calling down evil on someone and invoking God to do it is blasphemy. 
          Ernie once told us that to curse rational creatures is a grave offense against justice and charity.  When I sat in his classroom so long ago listening to him I thought—and still think—but if you say this to yourself and do not poison this guy’s reputation by enunciating it to someone else but to yourself in solitude, what’s wrong with that?  It makes me feel better.  And who hears it when I mutter to myself?  Ever since that time I have doubted Ernie on that particular item.  How do you sin against justice and charity if you growl to yourself imprecations against an unfeeling boss for example?   
         Another thing Ernie would say is this: “To curse irrational creatures such as the weather or animals who let us say defecate on the floor is a venial sin of impatience.”  Wha? Do you understand what I’m getting at here?  Is it not possible that we are too Jansenist in this business of cussing?  Do we imagine that General George Armstrong Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn…when suddenly surrounded by 3,000 Indians who seemingly came thundering out of the hills from ostensibly nowhere…and remembering that he foolishly left a supply of Gatling guns at Yellowstone because he felt they would not be needed…said: 
          “Oh my gosh where did these darned Indians come from all of a sudden?  And gee whiz, I wish I had the Gatling guns!” 
            Ernie also said this: “To curse the evil spirit as the enemy of God and human beings is lawful.”  That means I guess I can say: “God damn the devil and all his works!”  
          But Ernie, being Ernie, added: “Exclamations that in themselves are not sinful may become so for other reasons such as the danger of scandal.” 
          Why don’t you share with me your views…theological and otherwise…about the vice—I’ll admit it is that—of cussing? 

     *: Feast of St. Monica, Mother of St. Augustine [332-387]. Born in North Africa, Monica earned her sainthood the hard way. First she was married to Patricius, a dissolute pagan who was often unfaithful to her, a boozer and violent in temper when he was drinking which was often, reportedly.  Second her mother-in-law lived with them who had a scathing tongue and who sided with her son in all disputes, never staying out of them but intruding with bias and ill-feeling. Suffering through all that should have made Monica a saint anyhow—but she fell into alcoholism (I can understand why) which she conquered.

         Freeing herself of that old devil booze, she then proceeded to win his conversion. He was baptized in 370 and while she expected the remainder of their lives to be spent in calm and forbearance, he died the following year. She had three children: Augustine, Navigius and Perpetus…of which as we know Augustine was her greatest blessing but for years her greatest trial. The early Augustine lived such an irregular life that they argued often as she sought to get him to change his ways—finally throwing him out of her house. But she didn’t give up, turning to prayer, fasts and vigils hoping to achieve by these things what arguing failed to do.

        Augustine became, as we know, a great intellectual and teacher but still in his early adulthood did not change his ways.  In fact as he admits in his Confessions, he misled his mother on when his ship would leave for Rome and so when she showed up at the dock, the ship had already departed.  She caught the next ship, followed him to Rome and from there to Milan.  She contacted and was highly esteemed by Ambrose (later canonized), the bishop of Milan who converted him first to the moral life…enabling him to send his mistress away…and then to Catholicism, being baptized in 387. No convert to go halfway, Augustine rejected Monica’s suggestion that he marry in favor of the celibate life.  Gloriously happy, Monica set out on a journey to Africa with him but died on the way, at Ostia the same year her famous son was baptized.  She was only 55 but she earned her canonization through suffering, prayer, penance and humiliation. Humiliation? Nothing like being left on the dock while the ship carrying her son sails without her.



  1. I agree, Tom. Letting off steam is good and what most people think of as cursing is nothing more than letting off steam. The Baltimore Catechism defined cursing as “…the calling down of some evil on a person, place, or thing.”

    I doubt that many people consciously ‘call down evil’ on others – they are merely expressing frustration, anger, impatience etc. verbally. So, let off some steam. It’s better than bottling it up and letting it fester. And if anyone has a problem with that then they ought to get a life – the SOBs!

  2. I have to admit to "cussing" as you have described it above, and I agree that it is not the worst thing in the world.

    I do consider it an imperfection- perhaps a venial sin at worst. I do not think it something to be proud of.

    The 5th chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew has a long list of things that I fall short in. Jesus summarizes his sermon with "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect". Now, I know darn well that the chance of me reaching perfection in this life is very slim to none, yet it is what we are supposed to strive for...

    Calling down evil on another is a worse matter, regardless of whether that other person is aware of it or not. It harms the cursor more than the cursee!

    Keep up the good work Tom!

  3. Tom,

    Having spent too much time in the caddy yard, the Army and the locker room, I have accumulated over the years a very vivid vocabulary that escapes me from time to time. Letting off steam... I understand, but you have to admit it is better not to have the steam in the first place. That is called having the virtue of patience.

    That said, it is generally not appreciated now that Thomas More unloaded on Luther tons of scatalogical expletives in page after page of furious writing. You don't get that impression watching A Man for All Seasons.

    But, keep in mind, too, that More spent something like 18 months in the Tower of London essentially lving the life of a Carthusian monks, probably being purified of his sins and imperfections and growing in sanctity. His purgatory?

    Purgatory...where we gain the patience we did not cultivate here.

  4. vice, what vice ?? as a woman, if only what I had to hear was calling a male the son of a female canine, my ears wouldn't hurt at all and I certainly wouldn't faint - but the vile that I do hear from today's generation ... that's enough to make me go ask Moses if he would loan me those 2 tablets for awhile

    Praise God and pass the ice !

  5. Mr. Roeser,

    A few pieces of scripture to toss over in your head on the subject (I suggest reading the entire passage, but some key verses are pulled out):

    James 3:3-10

    Verse 10 – “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.”

    1 Corinthians 10:23-33

    Vs 23 – “Everything is permissible but not everything is beneficial.”

    Vs 32 – “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks, or the church of God”

    Romans 14:1-23 (you can substitute "words" for "food")

    Vs 19 – “Let us make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification”

    Matthew 5 (Sermon on the Mount) - I have a slightly different take than Eddie. To be true, Christ speaks of the heart behind the actions and even the intentions or desires behind the actions to paint a bleak picture of the human condition... on one hand, it could seem like one has kept the 10 Commandments to the letter... but the sin flowed from the desire to commit the infraction - anger being the emotional act of murder, in the same way lust is the emotional act of adultery, etc.

    It calls to mind another passage, Matthew 12:34b-37

    “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. 35The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. 36But I tell you that men will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken. 37For by your words you will be acquitted and by your words you will be condemned."

    Our actions condemn us. Catholics know this and feel the guilt of it. It isn't just cursing (or cussing), it may be lying or sarcasm or any number of other actions that make us feel... or the desire to rebel against God. We know in our hearts that it is wrong (or at least did the first time... after years and years we become callused and rationalize it away).

    But we do, of course, have hope (true hope, not Obamahope). If the story ended when Adam and Eve were kicked out of Eden, what a bleak story it would be. I won't go so far as to say what an evil Creator we have... because it just simply isn't true. It is our own actions and thoughts and desires that condemn us.

    And yet, we have the grace of Christ. His love covers over a multitude of sins. Whosoever believes in Him should not perish but has eternal life.

    So the Apostle Paul was not wrong when he said everything is permissible because we have freedom, a freedom brought forth by the Resurrection. The grace of Christ frees us from the power of sin and from the shackles of sin and from the penalty of sin.

    And there's the rub.

    Is cursing a sin?

    To truly answer that question, others must first be answered. In whose company are you? What is the purpose of the statement? Does it bring glory to God?

    The answer may very well be that it is a sin in some cases but not in others...

    This is a strange answer. A sin is a sin is a sin. Black and white. Or is it?

  6. Does it offend people within earshot? If so, then you may be sinning. It seems strange to talk about sin (definitively a black and white issue) in terms of gray… but go back to 1 Cor 1:23. If one causes his brother to stumble, then he himself is sinning as well.

    So, in some respects, we should censor ourselves so as to not bring down those around us. Could the turn of phrase be modified to give the same general feel, without the particular word that would offend? Probably (and you gave some interesting examples of certain ones that could be used, though these were both either terms or modifications of terms intended to insult the subject).

    And that really ties into the third point… Are the words (i.e. the insult) bringing glory to God?

    Solomon ends the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (12:13-14) thusly:

    “13 Now all has been heard;
    here is the conclusion of the matter:
    Fear God and keep his commandments,
    for this is the whole duty of man.
    14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
    including every hidden thing,
    whether it is good or evil.”
    If we are fulfilling the purpose for which we were created, then we would not be speaking with unwholesome talk (Eph 4:17-32, 5:1-7).

    (For a more thorough discussion on the matter, see also

    Apart from the theological answer, though, one must ask about the whole "politically correct" culture we live in. We are demonized if we say something deemed "incorrect" or "insensitive" by many (especially in places like the media) where they hold a double standard for themselves.

    Really, it calls into question language and the origin and purpose. The post-modern culture we live in would tell us that language (and thus, truth) is relative... that what you believe in is fine for you but it isn't binding to me.

    It harkens back to the former president, when asked about his previous answer to the question of if he had sexual relations with Monica Lewinski... and the answer was no... "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

    When I think of this, I sort of chuckle... to think he weaseled his way out of the whole affair (pun intended).

  7. And yet... when Moses asked God who he should tell pharaoh had sent him to request the release from bondage of the Israelites, God tells him his name is "I AM."

    Ironically, it is the same word, just in a different tense.

    To bring this back to point... Clinton attempted to twist words and manipulate them to avoid punishment, but God is the ultimate authority when it comes to language and everything else. Remember, man does not live on bread alone but on every WORD that proceeds from the mouth of God. So we must go to God’s word to see what God’s word says about the matter and act accordingly.

    And I know that it's hard (read: impossible) to do it all the time... Is it not Paul who says that he (the man upon whose pen 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament was written) is the chief of all sinners? And Paul, in describing his own actions in Romans 7 states that what he wants to do, he does not do, and what he does not want to do, he does. All of this comes from the greatest evangelist of all time (still winning converts 2000 years later!)! Sin is a tricky (sticky) thing that clings to us and drags us down, deceiving us into thinking that what we're doing isn't so bad... (we're not out raping and murdering, so we're alright, etc)

    But God's word is black and white and on point about sin.

    To conclude, sin is always a heart issue. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at on the Sermon on the Mount. It’s not to say that, just because someone doesn’t feel guilty (anymore) about the issue it isn’t a sin… it could certain could simply be that the person is so calloused by the repeated act that they’re experts at ignoring the tug on their heartstrings as the Holy Spirit strums away, attempting to appeal to their convictions that what they are doing is wrong.

    I suggest reading the book of 1 Peter (it’s only 5 chapters, not too long) as a benediction on the topic. In it, Peter is extolling believers scattered around the world to live as a chosen people set apart from the fallen world that they live in, not unlike our own.


  8. One of my favorite stories on this topic:

    One day a painter working on a ladder outside the office of Cardinal Roncalli (later Pope John XXII) painted the air blue at length and with gusto. The cardinal stepped outside the office looked up, wagged a finger and said, "Why can't you just say 'merde' like everyone else!?"

  9. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
    Colossians 3:8(NIV)

    Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
    Ephesians 4:2(NIV)

  10. Major General William Rosencrans (a Union commander in the Civil War and also a Catholic) was a frequent user of obscenity, especially when chewing out incapable subordinates. However, he carefully eschewed profanity, and he sometimes stopped to explain the distinction to his staff.