The Woman Taken in Adultery (1527-1529), by Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1556) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
Matthew 5:13-16 (RSV) “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.  “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.  Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.  Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
The age-old question and task of each Christian is to determine how to be in the world but not of it. Paul in Romans 12:2 states: “Do not be conformed to this world”. The Phillips paraphrase of the Bible for this verse has perhaps my favorite “alternate” or non-literal Bible rendering: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within . . .”
I don’t ever claim that this is a simple calculation: exactly how to do this in all particulars. It’s very complex. And so Christians have different opinions about it. Some of us think that talking “like the world” in every way crosses the line into the area of being “of” the world. Others think it is good as a way for the world to relate to the Church (or Christianity: more broadly). They see it as akin to Jesus talking to the prostitutes and tax-gatherers and centurions.
I’m of the opinion that Christians seeking to “relate” or evangelize and using language exactly like the world, with all its vulgarities, obscenities, profanities, and the ubiquitous sexual innuendo, go too far. It’s being “squeezed into the world’s mould”: what St. Paul says we ought not do. Karl Keating on my Facebook page today provided a delightful illustration of this perspective:
If the landlocked town of Ars had had longshoremen, I don’t think the good Curé would have thought it necessary to sound like a longshoreman in order to reach a longshoreman.
That has been the mainstream Catholic position, as far as I know. Now it’s being broken down. And I see that as a specimen of anti-traditionalist secularism: one of many such.
Speaking more broadly, as one who has been an evangelist and apologist as both a Protestant and Catholic for 35 years, I think it’s far more important to show love to non-Christians. We don’t have to imitate them in every way. If they swear like a sailor it’s not necessary to join right in and try to “be one of them.” They would detect it as forced and fake anyway: if we were simply doing it for that purpose.
The key is to show the love of Jesus, by being kind, charitable, and not making a big deal out of their language or other things that they do (like say, a dirty joke). That’s what reaches people: the expressed love; the concern, the non-judgmental attitude, as opposed to the pharisaical attitude which looks down its nose at everyone. I used to do street witnessing: mostly in my evangelical Protestant days, and I can say that I have talked to every conceivable sort of person, with every conceivable viewpoint. I used to do outreach at the Ann Arbor Art Fair (University of Michigan campus) for ten straight years in the 80s.
I always found that if you treated people with respect, showing love without pretense or any hint of felt superiority, that they would positively respond. I didn’t have to pretend to be like them, to talk their language, or act as they did, or look the same, or try to be “cool” as they defined it. I was myself, and I was there representing Jesus Christ my Lord. This notion that if we use all of the fashionable lingo that non-Christians and the secular culture now find perfectly acceptable, we’ll get through to folks more effectively, misses the main point: that of honestly sharing the gospel (and message of the fullness of the Catholic Church). Superficial similarities accomplish little. One needs to get to the heart of the matter.
Christians understand that we are all sinners. The non-believer is simply in a place that most of us used to be in, earlier in life. There are no grounds to look down on anyone. Probably the most notable example of my seeking to approach someone completely different from myself, with love, in writing, is my Friendly Dialogue with a Transgender Atheist & Satanist. That hits several major viewpoints contrary to Catholicism! Did I have to insult this person and treat them with contempt? No! And that is what touches people. We were able to have a pretty good and civil discussion. I wrote at the time:
I don’t hate anyone, and love all persons. Christians are called to love everyone as Christ loved us. If I met you, you would be as welcome in my home as anyone else, and treated no differently. Some Christians and moral traditionalists, unfortunately, do harbor hatred or prejudice towards various groups of people. I heartily condemn that.
This person used some pretty raw language, if I recall correctly. I didn’t feel that I had to join in with that, in order to better “connect.” It simply wasn’t necessary. Showing love and sharing the message is what is absolutely necessary and non-negotiable.
In any event, the Church and Catholic organizations have a perfect right to internally police themselves and to note that certain behaviors and language are beyond the pale. It may be difficult at times (like the famous issue of pornography and respectable nude art) to know where the line is, and reasonable and good Catholic and Christian people can differ about that in good faith, but to deny that there is any line at all (wherever one might place it) is going too far.
Meta Description: How can a Christian be IN the world but not OF it? And how does the issue of “inappropriate language” fit into that command?
Meta Keywords: profanity, obscenity, bad words, dirty words, sexual innuendo, bawdy jokes, vulgarity, cursing, bad language, inappropriate language, swearing, cussing