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Blasphemy (Greek blaptein , "to injure", and pheme , "reputation") signifies etymologically gross irreverence towards any person or thing worthy of exalted esteem. In this broad sense the term is used by Bacon when in his "Advancement of Learning" he speaks of "blasphemy against learning". St. Paul tells of being blasphemed ( 1 Corinthians 4:13 ) and the Latin Vulgate employs the word blasphemare to designate abusive language directed either against a people at large ( 2 Samuel 21:21 ; 1 Chronicles 20:7 ) or against individuals ( 1 Corinthians 10:30 ; Titus 3:2 ).


While etymologically blasphemy may denote the derogation of the honour due to a creature as well as of that belonging to God, in its strict acceptation it is used only in the latter sense. Hence it has been defined by Francisco Suárez as "any word of malediction, reproach, or contumely pronounced against God : (De Relig., tract. iii, lib. I, cap. iv, n. 1). It is to be noted that according to the definition (1) blasphemy is set down as a word, for ordinarily it is expressed in speech, though it may be committed in thought or in act. Being primarily a sin of the tongue, it will be seen to be opposed directly to the religious act of praising God. (2) It is said to be against God, though this may be only mediately, as when the contumelious word is spoken of the saints or of sacred things, because of the relationship they sustain to God and His service.

Blasphemy, by reason of the significance of the words with which it is expressed, may be of three kinds.

  • It is heretical when the insult to God involves a declaration that is against faith, as in the assertion: " God is cruel and unjust " or "The noblest work of man is God ".
  • It is imprecatory when it would cry a malediction upon the Supreme Being as when one would say: "Away with God ".
  • It is simply contumacious when it is wholly made up of contempt of, or indignation towards, God, as in the blasphemy of Julian the Apostate : "Thou has conquered, O Galilaean".
  • Again, blasphemy may be (1) either direct, as when the one blaspheming formally intends to dishonour the Divinity, or (2) indirect, as when without such intention blasphemous words are used with advertence to their import.


    Blasphemy is a sin against the virtue of religion by which we render to God the honour due to Him as our first beginning an last end. St. Thomas says that it is to be regarded as a sin against faith inasmuch as by it we attribute to God that which does not belong to Him, or deny Him that which is His (II-II, Q. xiii, art. I). De Lugo and others deny that this is an essential element in blasphemy (De just. et jure caeterisque virt. card., lib. II, c. xiv, disp. v, n. 26), but as Escobar (Theol. mor., lib. xxviii, c. xxxii, n. 716 sqq.) observes, the contention on this point concerns words only, since the followers of St. Thomas see in the contempt expressed in blasphemy the implication that God is contemptible--an implication in which all will allow there is attributed to God that which does not belong to Him. What is here said is of blasphemy in general; manifestly that form of the sin described above as heretical is not only opposed to the virtue of religion but that of faith as well. Blasphemy is of its whole nature ( ex toto genere suo ) a mortal sin, the gravest that may be committed against religion. The seriousness of an affront is proportioned to the dignity of the person towards whom it is directed. Since then the insult in blasphemy is offered to the ineffable majesty of God, the degree of its heinousness must be evident. Nevertheless because of slight or no advertence blasphemy may be either a venial sin only or no sin at all. Thus many expressions voiced in anger escape the enormity of a grave sin, except as is clear, when the anger is vented upon God. Again, in the case where blasphemous speech is uttered inadvertently, through force of habit, a grave sin is not committed as long as earnest resistance is made to the habit. If, however, no such effort is put forth there cannot but be grave guilt, though a mortal sin is not committed on the occasion of each and every blasphemous outburst. It has been said that heretical blasphemy besides a content directed against religion has that which is opposed to the virtue of faith. Similarly, imprecatory blasphemy is besides a violation of charity. These forms of the sin being specifically distinct from the simpler kind, it is necessary to specify their character in confession. Whether blasphemy has been direct or indirect, however, calls not for specification on the part of the penitent, since both these forms are specifically the same, though clearly differing in the degree of malice. The question has been raised whether blasphemy against the saints differs in kind from that uttered immediately against God. While De Lugo thinks that such a difference obtains (De Poenit., disp. xvi, n. 178 sqq.) the opposite opinion of St. Alphonsus seems more tenable, for as the latter theologian observes, the saints, ordinarily speaking, are not blasphemed because of their own excellence but because of their close relationship to God (Theol. Moral., lib. IV, n. 132).


    In the Old Law the blasphemer was punished by death. So God appointed on the occasion of the blasphemy of Salumith's son: "The man that curseth His God, shall bear his sin : And he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, dying let him die: all the multitude shall stone him, whether he be a native or a stranger. He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord, dying let him die" ( Leviticus 24:15-16 ). Upon hearing blasphemy the Jews were wont in detestation of the crime to rend their clothes ( 2 Kings 18:37 , 19:l ; Matthew 26:65 ).

    Among the Athenians blasphemy was actionable and according to Plutarch, Alcibiades was made to suffer the confiscation of his goods for ridiculing the rites of Ceres and Proserpine (Plutarch, Alcibiades). Among the ancient Romans blasphemy was punishable, though not by death. In the time of Justinian we find most severe enactments against this sin. In a constitution of A. D. 538 the people are called upon to abstain from blasphemy, which provokes God to anger. The prefect of the city is commanded to apprehend all such as shall persist in their offence after this admonition and put them to death, that so the city and the empire may not suffer because of their impiety (Auth. Col., Tit. vii, 7 November). Among the Visigoths, anyone blaspheming the name of Christ or expressing contempt of the Trinity had his head shorn, was subjected to a hundred stripes, and suffered perpetual imprisonment in chains. Among the Franks, according to a law enacted at the Diet of Aachen, A. D. 818, this sin was a capital offence. In the Gospels blasphemy is described as one of "the things that defile a man" ( Matthew 15:20 ; Mark 7:21-23 ).

    Medieval canon law punished the blasphemer most severely. By a decree of the thirteenth century one convicted of blasphemy was compelled to stand at the door of the church during the solemnities of the Mass for seven Sundays, and on the last of these days, divested of cloak and shoes, he was to appear with a rope about his neck. Obligations of fasting and alms-giving were likewise imposed under heaviest penalties (Decret., lib. V, tit. xxvi). The rigours of the ancient discipline were insisted upon by Pius V in his Constitution "Cum primum apostolatus" (p. 10). According to the law herein laid down, the layman found guilty of blasphemy was fined. The fine was increased upon his second offence, and upon his third he was sent into exile. If unable to pay the fine, he was upon the first conviction condemned to stand before the door of the church, his hands tied behind him. For the second offence he was flogged, and for the third his tongue was pierced, and he was sentenced to the galleys. The blasphemous cleric, if possessed of a benefice, lost upon his first offence a year's income; upon his second he was deprived of his benefice and exiled. If enjoying no benefice, he was first subjected to a fine and bodily punishment; on repeating the offence he was imprisoned, and still persisting, he was degraded and condemned to the galleys.


    Blasphemy cognizable by common law is defined by Blackstone to be "denying the being or providence of God, contumelious reproaches of our Saviour Jesus Christ, profane scoffing at the Holy Scripture , or exposing it to contempt or ridicule". The United States once had many penal statutes against blasphemy, which were declared constitutional as not subversive of the freedom of speech or liberty of the press (Am. and Eng. Ency. of Law, Vol. IV, 582). In the American Decisions (Vol. V, 335) we read that " Christianity being recognized by law therefore blasphemy against God and profane ridicule of Christ or the Holy Scripture are punishable at Common Law ", Accordingly where one uttered the following words " Jesus Christ was a bastard and his mother was a whore", it was held to be a public offence, punishable by the common law. The defendant found guilty by the court of common pleas of the blasphemy above quoted was sentenced to imprisonment for three months and to pay a fine of five hundred dollars.

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