In the movie reviews found here, there is typically a content review along the way. Part of that will focus on the degree of profanity used, with good reason. Profanity is a major problem in modern culture. Even the family shows on television seem to offer four-letter words on at least a semi-regular basis. Something that has been lost in this flood of crude language is the fact that not all such words are created equal. In treating them all the same, we have lost something of our respect for polite discourse, not to mention the respect due to God.
In looking at how crude language is used in movies and culture, we should first examine what makes words bad and even sinful in some cases.
My parish library has an old copy of Jone’s Moral Theology, which is generally regarded as a reliable guide. Jones makes a distinction between blasphemy and profanity which deserves repeating.
“Blasphemy,” he writes, “is any speech or gesture that contains contempt for or insult to God. It is always mortally sinful. It suffices that a person be conscious of the meaning of the words or signs used; it is not necessary that he have the direct intention to offer indignity to God.”
We know from paragraph 2148 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that this extends to other things, such as the saints, due to their close association with God.
In describing profanity, Jone says, “Profanity, or the disrespectful use of the Holy Name in anger or thoughtlessly, is in itself only a venial sin. Profanity may be seriously wrong if the anger that causes it is directed against God or if it appears, objectively at least, that one intends to vent his anger against most sacred objects.”
What sorts of cases might we use as examples of these phenomenon? It goes without saying that the actual wish for God to damn someone or directing a curse against God or His Church is utterly blasphemous and mortally sinful. That’s a clear case, but what if instead of a deliberate curse, the words are only an exclamation of anger or fear? In that case, using both Jone’s criteria what is normally regarded as mortal sin, it is a lesser offense but still a venial sin nonetheless. Of course, anyone who takes the Lord’s name in vain, whether angry or not, is still violating the Second Commandment, but more it would seem because of the lack of respect for God, rather than the sort of direct contempt implicated by blasphemy. This resembles the sort of profanity that Jones mentions.
With these criteria in mind, what we find in movies fits more practically in the latter category than the former. It’s doubtful that most of the language in the average motion picture carries behind it the sort of open contempt for God that would qualify for Jone’s definition of blasphemy. It does carry with it a lack of respect for God that carries the weight of sin. Despite the theological technicalities, when it hits the eardrums, it rings like blasphemy. As such, we should be especially sensitive to its use and steer clear of those who would be so free with Our Lord’s name and station.
However, there is a whole other subset of language that requires examination. These are the items classed as profanity that have no bearing on Our Lord or the sacred. For example, scatological terms or the increasingly common "f-bomb." This sort of language is best classified as coarse or crude. Of themselves, the words bear nothing intrinsically offensive, as their meaning depends on the context. This is unlike the aforementioned blasphemy and profanity, which deals immediately with holy things. These words hold a measure of scandal, however, because of how our prevailing society has labeled them. In using these words freely and without restraint, movies show a general lack of concern for a certain level of conversation and propriety. Consider the decision a person makes in describing common objects or actions in terms of feces. Over time, one can see how it might be possible for an overall lowering of verbal standards. After all, if a person thinks of everything in comparisons or exclamations of poop, there comes a time when we must wonder what that means about their views of the world itself or poop. Either way, it is not a flattering picture.
A separate illustration is provided by the f-bomb. While it has proven remarkably adaptive, and probably now functions as every part of speech, it’s most frequent use is as a euphemism for sexual intercourse. This means that a word commonly understood as scandalous and vulgar (in the modern sense) is used to denote an action that should be thought of with utmost dignity. It stands to reason that if we can think of good things, such as sex, in terms that debase them, then we can more easily be led into debasing the things themselves. Consider media depictions of sex. Are characters in film and television constantly pining about their desire for “dirty sex”? The irony is palpable considering that the Church is the one often chastised for turning sex into something dirty. The truth of the matter is that the Church holds sex in reverence and speaks of it in such terms, while the world wishes to make sex profane and so uses precisely that sort of language to describe it.
Should we consider these sinful? In most cases, they should probably be regarded as venial. It’s easy to see how they can drift into mortal sin, though, considering the power of words to stoke the passions in directions they don’t need to be going. This is more true, of course, for erotic language than the scatological, but the point remains that generating scandalous thoughts or sinful actions in another through words could drive the sinner here from venial to mortal.
I am reminded of a scene from CS Lewis’s book That Hideous Strength where the villains are driven into madness, breaking into unintelligible gibberish because of a curse placed upon them. This is what our society looks like. By allowing a breakdown of our language into increasingly inappropriate words, whether the intrinsically bad or the socially unacceptable, we have made ourselves more susceptible to our darkened intellects and weakened wills. One can imagine a time and place where coarse language might be appropriate (outrage, shock, etc.). We should be aware, though, of how ubiquitous it has become in all parts of our culture and consider what affect that might have on us as individuals and as families living in this environment.