I looked the word up in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary and found dignity defined as "the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect.
Belief in God and objective truth has been sidelined in our society, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington recently lamented. Because of this, he said, we live in a culture of "upside-down definitions." I have been reflecting on this notion of upside-down definitions as we prepare for Respect Life Month in October.
As Catholics we believe that respect for life is rooted in human dignity. But lately I've noticed that the definition of dignity is often turned upside-down, especially in our conversations about end-of-life issues.
I looked the word up in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary and found dignity defined as "the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect." This definition is consistent with Church teaching, which emphasizes that human dignity is the direct result of our being created in the image and likeness of God, and that it is objective and inviolable.
This means that human dignity is so sacred that it can never be denied or destroyed. Regardless of an individual's intelligence, abilities or personal gifts, he or she is equal in dignity to every other human being, and thus worthy of the same honor and respect. This applies to everyone -- from the infant in its mother's womb to the frailest centenarian; from the Nobel laureate to the youngster with Down Syndrome who will never be able to hold a job.
I also consulted the hugely popular online Urban Dictionary, which demonstrated the profound contradiction in our contemporary understanding of dignity. In this always-current, crowdsourced reference, dignity is described as self-respect, or pride in oneself. This makes it subjective and hence no longer inviolable. Based on this definition, dignity is a function of how I feel about myself, or what others think of me. It is something I can earn or merit; but it is also something of which I can be robbed.
This subjective notion of human dignity is driving the debate over assisted suicide and euthanasia. In fact, proponents of physician-assisted suicide often refer to it precisely as "death with dignity." They assert that sickness, disability and the loss of independence rob us of our dignity, and that ending our own lives at a moment of our choosing is somehow dignified.
Doesn't true human dignity reside, rather, in assuming our sufferings in union with Christ and accepting the assistance of others as graciously as possible? God has confided each one of us to the love of all. Our dependency is an occasion of grace both for ourselves and for others, and so there is no need to feel humiliated or ashamed in moments of weakness. Perhaps it is when we are sick and our situation seems the most "undignified" that our dignity as children of God, created in his image and destined for eternal life with him, is most clearly manifest.
As Little Sisters of the Poor we provide hands-on care to the frail elderly and dying. We know only too well that as their bodies begin to fail, the sick often experience symptoms that many would consider undignified (incontinence, confusion, etc.). But this is just the superficial level; it does not diminish their dignity as human beings.
In fact, so precious and worthy of honor are our Residents that when they are dying we keep a constant vigil at their bedside. These are profoundly sacred moments, for we know that contrary to human appearances, something awesome and beautiful is happening -- a soul is offering itself back to the God who gave it life and who is eager to welcome it in an eternal embrace of merciful love. This is the real definition of death with dignity.
Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.