A common question people often have is if cussing, swearing, or the use of foul language is a sin. We live in a society where we all agree that foul language is impolite and should not be said around children or in polite company.
But just because something is impolite doesn’t mean it’s a sin. Burping at the dinner table is impolite, but no Catholic thinks burping is a sin.
So lets look at what it means to curse, swear, cuss, be vulgar, and use bad language from a faith and reason approach. Looking at what each one of these words mean and how they’re used should shed some light on the sinfulness of them.
In America we use several words to mean foul language. For the sake of this article, we’ll go through several of the common words used to describe bad language and discuss if they are sins by their strict definition and if they are sins by how they’re used to describe bad words.
What does it mean to cuss or curse?
The word cuss comes from the word curse. It’s a slang form of the word. So, to cuss or to curse means the same thing. Cuss words are curse words, and vice versa. But what does it mean to curse?
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines “cursing” as “call[ing] down evil upon God or creatures, rational or irrational, living or dead.” A curse is the opposite of a blessing.
And here is what the Bible has to say about cursing:
Colossians 3:8 “But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.”
Ephesians 4:29 “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”
James 3:10 “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so.”
Proverbs 8:13 “The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate.”
Now that we know what a curse is, we must ask if we are cursing when using vulgar profanity. And the answer seems to be sometimes. Yes, you can use four-letter words in a curse. But not every four-letter word is a curse.
So, is cussing a sin? The answer is sometimes. If you are using foul language to call down evil upon something, then it is a sin. If you are using foul language but not calling down evil upon something, then it is not cursing and, therefore, not a sin. There is also a third option. You do not need to use foul language to curse. You can use perfectly appropriate language to curse, so remember.
What does it mean to Swear?
Lets look at the word “swearing.” Often times we use this word to describe profane or vulgar language. Let’s understand what it means and see if it is a sin.
To Swear means to take an oath or make a promise. In Matthew 5:34-37 Jesus Christ says this:
But I say to you, do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil
This seems to imply that Christians should not make any oaths or swear at all. But this is not the case. Jesus Christ often used hyperbole to make a point. And the point he is trying to make is that Christians are judged by what they do, not by what they promise.
Here is what the Catechism has to say about swearing:
Promises made to others in God’s name 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 to make God out to be a liar… The second commandment forbids false oaths. Taking an oath or swearing is to take God as witness to what one affirms. It is to invoke the divine truthfulness as a pledge of one’s own truthfulness. An oath engages the Lord’s name. “You shall fear the LORD your God; you shall serve him, and swear by his name” (CCC 2147, 2150).
So oaths and swearing are okay if they align with the truth. But any oaths or swearing that is NOT in line with truth violates the Ten Commandments, specifically the Second Commandment. Swearing to something untrue or evil takes the lord’s name in vain.
So, is swearing a sin? The answer is sometimes. If you swear an oath that is in line with truth and goodness, it is NOT a sin. If you swear an oath that is untrue, it is a sin.
However, as modern Americans, we almost never use the word “swearing” in this way. Usually, when someone is swearing, they’re just saying bad words. But as we just saw, this isn’t actually swearing in the biblical or technical sense.
What about profanity or vulgarities?
The truth is when most people talk about cussing or swearing, what they really mean is profanity. Are certain words sinful? Is what they really want to know? And the answer is most likely no.
The Catholic Church does not directly speak on the use of profanity. This is likely because profanities tend to vary by time and culture.
That being said, profanities can certainly be used in cursing and swearing. And if they are used in the ways described above, then yes, they are sins. Furthermore, attaching a profanity to the name of the lord most certainly qualifies as taking the lord’s name in vain. And that, too, would be a sin. However, if, for example, you stubbed your toe, dropping an F-bomb would not be a sin.
One further consideration. While profanity may not be a sin, it can make you look bad. And as a Catholic, you will be held to a higher standard than most. That means it’s prudent to be careful about what comes from our mouths. As a Catholic, using profanity in front of an important person might make you and, by extension, Catholicism look bad. However, if you’re on an oil rig, not using profanity might look just as bad. The point is to be careful with your speech and try to use good judgment when it comes to the people you are around in the world.