So, we have always taught our kids to avoid using the phrase “Oh my God” due to the commandment to not take the Lord’s name in vain. But what about sayings that invoke the word “hell” such as “what the hell” or “hell, yeah/yes”? Those don’t necessarily seem to fall as clearly under the commandment but they feel similarly inappropriate? Or am I over analyzing?
Your question is one that I have thought about a lot during different periods in my life. Most recently, I have had several conversations and read some articles about Mark Wahlberg’s movie Father Stu, which depicts the amazing story of an adult convert named Stuart Long who was ordained a priest after a long journey of sin mixed with God’s providence. I saw the movie with one of my seminary classmates this spring, and at the end of it I was tearing up as it showed a clip of the real Father Stu before he died of a muscle disorder. The only problem with the movie was that it was rated R for language. According to one count I saw, there were around 100 cuss words in the movie, fifty of which were sexual in nature. Before his conversion, Father Stu had a foul mouth, but the movie didn’t really depict that his language changed along with the rest of his life, although that was actually a significant part of his life story.
I share this because it makes me ask the question, “Does it really matter what language we use?” I think the answer seems to be “yes,” although expressing why is not so easy. It seems to come down to the nature of speech and why God gave us this ability. He gave us speech to be used for building others up, to express truth, and to offer praise to God. Surprisingly, the Catechism doesn’t explicitly address the morality of using “cuss words,” although there is a significant section on the Second Commandment, using God’s Name in vain.
You are right to teach your family to avoid the phrase, “O my God,” and other similar phrases that use the name of Jesus, Christ, or Mary. Even if we are not intentionally using these names to curse someone/something, we are using them for a reason that is not worthy of the honor due to them. The Catechism says in paragraphs 2143-2144,
Among all the words of Revelation, there is one which is unique: the revealed name of God. God confides his name to those who believe in him; he reveals himself to them in his personal mystery. the gift of a name belongs to the order of trust and intimacy. “The Lord’s name is holy.” For this reason man must not abuse it. He must keep it in mind in silent, loving adoration. He will not introduce it into his own speech except to bless, praise, and glorify it.Respect for his name is an expression of the respect owed to the mystery of God himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes.
But this still doesn’t exactly address the second part of your question about using the word “hell” or similar phrases. I had a high school teacher who would sometimes quip that hell is a place, not a cuss word. There are some words that seem to be appropriate in the barnyard but not at the kitchen table. As human beings, God has made us naturally attracted to goodness, truth, and beauty. Everything in harmony with these three things is worth striving for and loving. It seems that using God’s name in vain, along with all other foul language, does not fit in these categories! Jesus was the most persuasive speaker to ever live, and he never resorted to using bad language to make his point. He appealed to the deepest part of our heart which longs to be known and loved by God. Using cuss words may have gotten attention for a time, but it would have distracted from his message. I think the same is true for our own use of speech. There are better ways to express ideas and feelings that do not include words which refer to hell (a truly horrific place) or various bodily functions. (But, even as I write this, part of me rebels and wants to justify times in which some words really do get the point across. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak!)
Here are a few scriptures for consideration on this topic:
Colossians 3:8 “But 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 moths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may impart grace to those who hear.”
Matthew 15:11 “It is not what goes into the mouth which defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”
There are also a lot of fiery quotes from saints on avoiding foul language, that I don’t have space to include today!
It is good to teach children (and ourselves) to avoid using all sorts of inappropriate words. As they grow up, their vocabulary will undoubtedly expand beyond what we teach them, but practicing purity in speech helps provide a loving, affirming environment in which to raise a family. I hope this answer was helpful. Thank you for your witness to raising your family in a spirit of encouragement in the Lord!