By Father Thomas Esposito, O. Cist.
Special to The Texas Catholic
(Note: Father Thomas Esposito, O. Cist., recently participated in a panel discussion with other University of Dallas professors about human dignity and free speech on the campus. This column is a reworking of his opening remarks at the panel.)
Profane and profanity are English words commonly used in reference to swearing, cursing, and hurling abusive language at someone. That’s an intriguing development from their Latin roots! A fanum is a temple or a sanctuary; attach the preposition pro to it, and you get “before/in front of/ outside the temple.”
Language that is not fitting to be heard in the presence of the divine, therefore, is unholy, not sacred: literally, profane.
But more is at work in this etymology exercise than an exhortation to guard one’s tongue, however constant and necessary such an exhortation might be. In the Christian context, God’s presence is not confined to a sacred building: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16). This verse is just one among several where St. Paul reflects, with the light of Christ, on the common Old Testament theme of sheer marvel at the unique dignity of the human person (see also 1 Corinthians 6:19; 2 Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-22).
Every human being is a tabernacle “crowned with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:6), words used elsewhere in Scripture to denote the presence of God dwelling in the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy of Holies. Every person is a microcosm: a little world, a miniature universe in which God delights to condense His infinite beauty and mystery. On display in the vast array of peoples and personalities is the stunning creativity of God, the Author of life in whose image and likeness every human being is fashioned (Genesis 1:26-27). Gerard Manley Hopkins channels this beautiful truth through the Incarnation in his poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”: “[…] for Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
The Scripture courses that I teach remind me daily of this beautiful mystery of the human being as the image of God, present on the first page of the Bible. But as a priest, I know that human beings tarnish that image — internally, when selfish sin stains the soul in thought, word, and deed, and externally, when we profane the temple of God that is our neighbor in thought, word, and deed. The New Testament letter of James highlights the savage destruction that the unchecked tongue is capable of unleashing: “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. This need not be so, my brothers and sisters” (James 3:7-10).
In this context, we must consider the intrinsic relationship between rights and responsibilities. The right to free speech, enshrined in the Bill of Rights, entails more than unbounded license to say whatever I feel like saying; it places upon us a duty to understand our responsibility, our “ability to respond,” to use a popular etymology, to our neighbor in charity. As Catholics, whether speaking at a university or a restaurant, whether in a parish or at work, we have a privileged opportunity to protect and promote free speech while cultivating and modeling responsible dialogue, rooted in the pursuit of truth and wisdom that brings glory and honor to God. Such dialogue does not profane the name of God, but rather sees in our neighbor, to use the phrase of St. John Chrysostom, “the most precious temple of all,” where God desires to dwell.
Father Thomas Esposito, O. Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas.