In rebuking the Pharisees for misunderstanding the heart of the Mosaic Law, our Lord issued a declaration, unprovoked by the immediate context, that reverberates today: “[T]he things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile.” (Matthew 15:18)
What is in the heart that our words manifest? Again, our Lord is quite direct: “[F]rom the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy. These are what defile a person.” (Matthew 15:19-20)
That is, a host of unholy, sinful desires – they are collectively called “concupiscence” – joust within us every waking moment, and through our impure words they percolate into the world. Unholy speech comes in many kinds: gossip, detraction, calumny, deceit, lying, cheating, complaining, berating, lamenting, cursing. Controlling our tongues can seem like a Sisyphean task, as even the New Testament acknowledges: “If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man.” (James 3:1)
Of all these sins, the phenomenon of cursing provides a special window through which we perceive three critical facets of Christian living: the disorder of the soul, the need for self-discipline, the place of the Christian in the world.
In casual speech and tense situations, curse words punctuate nearly every sentence, especially among groups of men. Wielded as nouns, verbs, adjectives, and interjections (some four-letter words can be all four), curse words, the speaker believes, add emphasis and drama to the narrative. And they are accepted by society as part of the lexical landscape.
Coaching youth sports, I have found that children begin cursing quietly among themselves around age eight; by age ten they do so openly on the field and on the court, where they may perhaps receive a mild reprimand, but the adults around them largely look the other way – they are using the same words themselves.
Yes, curse words reveal disorder in our souls, which are torn between concupiscence and the God who calls us to perfection in Him. More than that, though, the nonchalance with which curse words are uttered points to a great danger of the spiritual life: the acceptance of sin as a normal part of living – not as something to be fought daily and eradicated.
From there it is but a few steps to dismissing sin as a reality altogether, as our modern age has done so effectively. A worse conclusion can follow: the cavalier and pernicious attitude of “I’m going to Hell anyway, so what difference does it make what I say or do?”
This is the defilement that our Lord speaks of, and St. Francis de Sales brilliantly captures the insidious danger that habitual cursing can generate:
An impure word falling upon a weak mind spreads its infection like a drop of oil on a garment, and sometimes it will take such a hold of the heart, as to fill it with an infinitude of lascivious thoughts and temptations.
This is also an infection that spreads not only in the heart of the listener but in the speaker himself. Mortal sinners are not born but made through the slow, cancerous growth first of vice and then of venial sins.
Growing up in a milieu where curse words are as common as any other, young people, without the benefit of a surrounding Christian culture, logically conclude that “this is how adults talk” and follow suit. To resist the false allure of this vocabulary requires tremendous self-discipline, especially when first trying to break the habit.
Most will not succeed if motivated only by the temporal desire to cleanse one’s vocabulary. But if we realize that cursing is displeasing to God who loves us more than imaginable, we can acquire much-needed supernatural motivation to master our tongues. And if we can resist the temptation to curse, we will develop the virtue of self-restraint that will keep us from falling into other temptations.
I remain ever grateful to the young post-collegian leading me and a group of collegians through Europe years ago. He chastised me after I let go a few curse words when we could not figure out the trains. The rebuke stung – but I immediately understood that if I wanted to be a sincere Catholic, I had to lasso my tongue. With concerted effort and God’s grace, it took only two more weeks for me to let go of those words for good.
To refrain from cursing in a curse-filled world is a constant reminder that Christians are never completely at home in this world. Conversations and situations filled with vice or sin should prick our consciences, for we know they are wrong. To be Christian can mean being alone with the Lord, suffering in silence, while simultaneously being surrounded by others in public.
Frankly, I have never had the courage to rebuke my fellow adults for their colorful language, though I am not sure it would do much good. What has been interesting over the years, however, is that acquaintances and associates of various kinds have noticed that I do not use these words and have commented in a complimentary way to that end on several occasions. Simply refraining from curse words, to my surprise, has served as a means of silent evangelization. In a world filled with profane words, not joining the racket can witness to the truth.
We need not be pure of heart to strive to root out vices – including small ones like cursing – and embrace virtue. Doing so can transform defilement into sanctification, but only with God’s grace. So let us heed the exhortation of St. Paul: “[L]et the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15)