Take Not the Name of the Church in Vain

I’ve never found very convincing the notion that the commandment against taking the name of the Lord in vain is about swearing.  I’m not defending swearing, but I also don’t think God expended one of only ten commandments to rank as a mortal sin saying “g-dammit” when you’re aggravated. God is just not that thin-skinned.

And “God” isn’t his name anyway.  The Scriptures tell us He “has the name above all other names,” which for some purposes is signified by use of the “sacred tetragrammaton” – so sacred that the four letters YHWH, which may represent “I am who am” or “I am with you,” were not to be spoken. In its place,  Jewish readers say “Adonai,” which we render in English as “the LORD.”  So, as annoyed as I am singing sappy 1970s worship tunes about “Yahweh,” because I know how offensive this is to our Jewish brethren, that isn’t His name either.

Not taking the name of the Lord in vain is related to the first commandment’s prohibitions against idolatry: i.e., having any gods other than the LORD and making graven images.  In idolatry, the worshipper forms the “god” to his or her image – warriors worship the war god, and hunters worship the hunter god – whereas we are formed in God’s image.

When Moses brings the two tablets with the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai, he finds that the Israelites have made a golden calf.  Why a golden calf?  As a shepherding people wandering in the wilderness, they want bigger herds.  So they made an image of their own desire. Every act of idolatry is an act of self-idolatry. We make the “god” we want.  And the results are disastrous.  If we want to be formed into God’s image – the God of justice and love – we begin by following the commandments written on those two tablets.

So why is it important that we not take the name of the LORD in vain?  Above all because calling upon the name of a divinity was the traditional way of “conjuring” a god, a spirit, or a demon.  You don’t conjure the LORD.  He does not arise to do our bidding, even if we offer Him a cartload of sacrifices.  It’s unhealthy to think of Him that way – as though our relationship were a quid pro quo, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”.  All the gifts we offer to God are gifts God has given us, including the “gift” of our virtuous acts.  God’s grace – what Catholics call “prevenient grace” – makes possible all our selfless acts of love.  “We love,” it says in 1 John 4, “because God has loved us first.”

So one thing you don’t want to do is to imagine that you can “call down” the LORD to do your selfish will or crush your opponents.  God will always do the just thing in accord with His divine providence irrespective of what you ask of Him.  So, in this sense, saying “God will damn you” is not only absurd – you have no idea what God will or won’t do – it’s also a grievous error.  You are mistaking your will for God’s will.


One day, praying quietly in a chapel, I heard a young man across the way say to a young woman: “I know it’s God’s will that we should be together.”  Actually, he didn’t know that.  He was using God’s name to manipulate her.  And that’s a horrible sin.  So too, when a preacher proclaims that “God would never condemn x” even though the Scriptures clearly reveal the opposite, he is guilty of “taking the name of the LORD in vain.”

There are repeated warnings in the Old Testament against both idolatry and false prophecy.  They are sins of the first order.  And it is these sins that are condemned by the commandment, “take not the name of the Lord in vain.”

Perhaps then there should be a related commandment: “Take not the name of thy Church in vain.”  People say things all the time in the name of the Church that are simply false, absurd, or nefarious.  When people claim that “the Church teaches x,” half the time the Church doesn’t.  And don’t get me started on how often people have insisted, “In canon law, it says. . .” when it doesn’t.

And then there’s the odd habit of people taking upon themselves the apostolic authority to proclaim others “heretics.”  A “heretic” is not simply someone with whom you disagree.  Nor is someone a “heretic” if he does not seem in agreement with an out-of-context, centuries-old papal statement you found online.

When I am asked whether someone is a heretic, I say that such determinations are “above my pay grade.”  I am not a bishop with apostolic authority.  I can say that such-and-such a position seems “troubling” or “not in accord with the Church’s tradition and magisterial teaching, as far as I can judge such matters  if I’ve read all the relevant documents properly and understood correctly what the speaker or writer was saying.

But dismissing someone glibly on Twitter as a heretic is the adult equivalent of the childish rant: “You’re a dork!” — especially when the person to be thus cast into the outer darkness as a “heretic” is someone known to be a faithful Catholic.  To my mind, that’s taking the name of the Church in vain. Such a person is likely mistaking his thoughts and dispositions for magisterial teaching. And that’s, well, heretical.

The word “heresy” originally comes from a Greek word meaning “to choose.” As idolatry is forming God to your image, to fit your wants and desires, so too heresy is forming the Church to fit your preferences and dispositions. And whether you’re choosing from the right side of the menu or the left, it’s still you doing the choosing.  Either way, it’s bad — whether you’re a “conservative” Catholic with a smattering of theology courses or an elite German bishop.


*Image: Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf by William Blake, c. 1799-1800 [TATE, London]

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Hadley Arkes’ Boswell, Johnson, and the Church

James H. Toner’s Callused Consciences

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.