ASK FATHER: Must I avoid TV, news, movies if you know that the Lord’s Name will be taken in vain?

From readers…

Lector 1 quaeritur:

Must I refrain from listening to a useful source of news and information because the presenter takes the Lord’s Name in vain or curses?

Lector 2 quaeritur:

Is it a sin to watch a movie that you know takes the Lord’s name in vain?

Not only that, I had to ask myself question a couple days ago. There is an online chess commentator, quite good though I suspect he may have some issues, who occasionally uses the Lord’s Name as an exclamation of surprise.   I’ve usually stopped watching at that point and find something else.  As an aside: he has at times stated that he is aware that this is hurtful to some people.  It goes to show how people can develop bad language habits.   The only effective way to get rid of a bad language habit is to make a list of new words and then, consciously and contentiously begin to use them instead until new habits are formed.  But I digress.

I was exchanging notes about this with a priest friend the other day whose formation and opinions are gold.

This is what we came up with.

Asking if something is sinful is certainly a valid question but a poor starting point. The real question is: “Does this give God glory?”

If that were to guide our decisions things would be much clearer.

In any event, when this sort of thing comes up, as it does in life, it is possible to respond “Praise His Holy Name”, or the like.   Also, we can make an act of reparation for the sin later on.  If we know the person well, explain that it is offensive.  Also, after my daily Masses that are streamed I will sometimes sing or recite a litany, including the Litany of the Holy Name in reparation for these offenses.

In the case of movies, etc… tough call.   It is objectively wrong to use the Name of the Lord improperly.  That said, in the depiction of life in a movie… it’s hard to say.  There are gray areas here, I think, and I don’t want to spin them out too much.

One can make arguments about depictions of real life: is it really necessary to include something like that to make it realistic?  Really?  While it is true that some people have appalling language habits, do they have to be recorded for movies, etc?

Moreover, what about so-called minced oaths?   Must I avoid reading Agatha Christie’s Poirot stories because he says, “Sacrebleu!”, which is a mince oath for “sacré dieu… holy God”?  Must I avoid Shakespeare because his double-entendres that are … ribald?  Must I avoid visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art because someone else might consider some of the holdings there to be offensive?  If a bad movie is run on a network, and I choose not to watch it, must I therefore also never watching anything else on that network?  If you can see bad things on TV screens, must all TVs go?  (Some would say that isn’t a bad idea.)  How about computers or phones?  Where does this stop?

There are instances that cross a line from gray to “nay!”

The late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in an opinion about what constituted “hard-core pornography” or “obscene”, once stated the now famous phrase, “I know it when I see it.”   There are movies that have scripts which seem to go out of the way to offend or numb or mock through the Name of the Lord.  I saw a little of a film the other day and it seemed to me so obvious that that was the intent that I found something else.   One can always make the choice to view nothing other than what has been vetted.  You don’t lose out on all that much in the long run that way.  And certainly there are classic films that are still great and are clean.  Tutior pars?

So, circling back to the response, above.

Asking if something is sinful is certainly a valid question but a poor starting point. The real question is: “Does this give God glory?”

After this, I will redirect you to your regular confessor, who will have an insight into who you are and what you can deal with.  Ask him.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Tantum Ergo says:

    If the person who took the Lord’s Name in vain could use a jolt, just stop, look at him in the eye and say, “That Name is holy.”

  2. TonyO says:

    Such balanced advice, thank you!

    A friend told us a story of her teen son, whom she had taught to internally say an exclamatory prayer like “Jesus have mercy” whenever he heard someone use the Lord’s name in vain. He later announced to her that he had stopped playing basketball with some friends, because he spent the whole time saying “Jesus have mercy” instead of playing basketball!

    It is certainly the case that he may have made a very good choice by dropping those “friends.” It is also possible that he might have made a different choice by confronting them and saying “guys, I know you don’t care about this, but I do. It hurts my ears and is a violence to my psyche. Pick up some other phrase to use, and swear with that.” And if they point blank refused, THEN leave. But if they said “we’ll try”, maybe he might have started some conversions, who knows? The prudent thing to do might well have depended on details: was he older or younger compared to the others, etc?

    I have long thought that there is little or no excuse for a screenwriter or director to insist that he just has to write in using God’s name in vain to do a scene. You can get pretty much the same effect through other means. For instance, have the character say “Damnation!” instead. It might – in some circumstances – also represent a character who is similarly defiant of God, but it doesn’t require the actor to use God’s name in vain. I might have to rethink the case in the utterly unique situation of a director making a true-to-life movie about a well-known real person whose well-known, characteristic swear word involved God’s name, but other than that, why would it be “necessary” to use it when there are plenty of other choices?

  3. Imrahil says:

    The thing is that tutiorism has been officially frowned upon by the Church. And this precisely for the reason that while it does give God glory not to sin, and also to do good works, the “avoiding contamination in situations when it would be clear anyway that you don’t intend to sin”… er… not so much.

    Hence, I respectfully disagree on this point: “Does this avoid sin?” is a good starting point when we are talking about avoid sin. It is of course not quite the best question in the matter of how much should we pray and how much should we fast and how many alms do we give and how attentive should we be at prayer, and the like (though even then still sort-of-legitimate for the unvowed layman, I’d fancy); but this is a matter different from avoiding sin. Avoiding sin is, do not get me wrong, a good aim, because the sin does offend God; but in specifically this, other than in other things, we can and even ought to stick to the minimum.

    Wherefore, the answer is “no” to all of the above, except when the said line is crossed.

    (And besides, noone from populaces formed by Catholicism would even so much as think there could be a question of sin if, in moments of distress or excitement, they say, e. g., the three names of the Holy Family [which I leave out only as a courtesy to readers who err in this matter, not because that would be wrong]. If anything, this would be associated with being pious.)

  4. MaureenTheTemp says:

    What if reading the news makes you swear? I’m finding the news an occasion of sin, lately.

  5. Jana Parma says:

    Years ago, I was letting my preschool son watch one of those Amazon cartoon truck shows (I think it was Tom the Tow Truck). They were cute and did problem solving. One day my son ran to me and told me the show said a bad word. I listened to it and was shocked that it was violating the 2nd commandment. I thanked my child and decided to not let any of those shows on anymore. We stick to classics if we want to see something but rarely anything new and only if I’ve prewatched it.

  6. Hidden One says:

    I would really like to read a serious work or two, at least, by one or more orthodox Catholic theologians, especially Thomistic works, that address these kinds of issues (moral quandries related to the elective consumption, as well as production, of entertainment and other media) systematically and in detail. Do any exist already? If not, surely there are a few theses, dissertations, academic monographs, etc., that could come out of it.

  7. Thomas says:

    I started this when I was an airline captain and had to fly with a first officer who would say the name of Jesus, in a way that did not give Him glory. After 2 or 3 times, I would look over at him and say “You surely do pray a lot”. That usually would stop it. Since then, I use that tactic all the time.

  8. says:

    A service that I’ve been using is VidAngel. It’s a service that allows the user to choose for himself what elements of a television show or movie to skip over or bleep out. It makes a custom-made airplane version of a movie, as family-friendly or not as you want it to be. They have it broken down to many different categories, so it is easy to find those areas you wish to not include in your viewing experience. For those shows/movies which take the Lord’s name in vain, it is very easy for me to not hear such done.

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  10. APX says:

    I ran into a similar issue with a piece of music for one of my secular choirs which would have had the Lord’s name taken in vain 600+ times (sung 9 times in the piece by 60+ choir members). The piece had a composer’s note that the offending word could be changed with a different word of equally piratey sound. I requested we use that one instead. My request was met with an explanation of why he wouldn’t change it and allowed me to not sing it. It was close to the Holy Name of Jesus, so I went over his head straight to God to intervene on the feast day, and then COVID started shortly thereafter and we were shutdown and never performed it.

  11. The Vicar says:

    I must confess being lax about this until recently. If you remember, Pope Benedict had a devotion to the Holy Face of Christ. Specifically, he had a devotion attached to the Veil of Mannopello tradition.

    In doing some home work for Lent, it was brought to my attention that a devotion to the Holy Face of Christ obliges us to revere the name of Christ.

    Technically, to someone who knows better, even to be in the presence of those who blaspheme is sinful (one can argue about the gravity of the sin).

    We should revere both the name of Christ and his Face to the extent that we recoil at the improper use of His name.

    It would be appropriate to do an act of penance for any instance when we are the presence of someone who uses the Lord’s name improperly.

    I am late to the game on this …

    Just thought I would pass it along.

    May the most holy, most sacred, most adorable, most incomprehensible and unutterable Name of God be always praised, blessed, loved, adored and glorified in Heaven, on earth, and under the earth, by all the creatures of God, and by the Sacred Heart of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. Amen.

  12. Imrahil says:

    >>Technically, to someone who knows better, even to be in the presence of those who blaspheme is sinful.

    And why would that be? The Commandment is “thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain”, not “thou shalt not be present when thy brother taketh the Lord’s name in vain”.

    If he does, this falls under the usual prudential rules and deliberations under the head of “if thou seest thy brother sinning”.

    – Also, let’s not be too generous with words; they have specific meanings. An actual blasphemy is a really ghastly thing (for them, I can understand that sentiment, although even that is a sin of the sinner and not per se the bystander). Taking the Lord’s name in vain, on the other hand, even if it really is such, is a sin, but pretty much an everydayish sort of sin among the faithful (“in itself this would be grave, but in practice it is venial because people do not think about what they say”, says St. Alphonsus).

    Just because we don’t have a habit of actual blasphemies in our language (there is one regularly used expression of such kind, I regret to say, in Italian; both the English as the German speakers’ temptation is rather to curse ourselves to Hell) doesn’t “upgrade” sins far less serious, even if they also really are sinful, into blasphemies.

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