The definition of dignity has morphed into something that no longer comes close to what the Catholic Church teaches or even what reflects a decent respect for human life, writes Charles Lewis. Photo/Pixabay

Comment: Our definition of ‘dignity’ is caught in a death spiral

  • June 29, 2017

I want to focus on a single word, one that is loaded with enough meaning to sway life or death decisions.

The word is “dignity.” It has been warped and misused to such an extent, and so effectively, that I believe it has actually made euthanasia wildly popular, even among Christians. For years we have heard the term “death with dignity” and most now identify it with a pro-euthanasia view as opposed to natural death.

The definition of dignity has morphed into something that no longer comes close to what the Catholic Church teaches or even what reflects a decent respect for human life. Its misuse is propaganda at its finest because it has been effective. Today 80 per cent of Canadians support euthanasia. And that includes at least 70 per cent of self-identified Catholics.

Dignity has come to mean never losing control. It means always being physically vital and even beautiful, but beautiful in a manner that is merely skin-deep. Suffering is therefore not dignified unless it is associated with some great athletic accomplishment.

Today, to be dignified means never having flaws, either physical or mental. It means being autonomous. It means having money and never being poor. Poverty is undignified because poor people cannot purchase those goods necessary to be dignified.

This idea of dignity is reinforced on an hourly basis by the non-stop images that pollute our inner lives — on television, on billboards, in magazine ads, in film and on the Internet. These images are meant to make us feel uncomfortable and therefore push us out of lethargy to strive to become “better” people — to look better, own nicer clothes and buy all those products that will give our lives meaning.

The better people, regardless of age, always look great, radiate health and vigour, have money and own beautiful homes. When they’re not out spiking volleyballs or running marathons they’re at an exclusive ball to support some acceptable liberal cause or taking exotic eco trips that are meant to combine pleasure with a sense of righteousness and responsibility.

Dignity has become a goal rather than a state of being. It’s something that can be bought, something to maintain constantly like a fine car.

So if suddenly you need help, because you are ill or very old, you’re no longer dignified. You need help washing, that’s definitely not dignified. Drooling is certainly not dignified. When you lose self-control you have lost some autonomy and any loss of autonomy is a serious diminishment of the quality of life. That is terribly undignified.

To lack dignity, in the way it is now defined, is to be an outlier. It makes others uncomfortable. It takes the time of others to care for those who fall below the standard. You are not a real person anymore.

When we lose what passes for dignity we begin to feel we are a burden. We are holding others back from having a good and satisfying life.

Even if we have taken care of others we somehow come to believe we are not worth the same effort from someone else.

There are many reasons why 2,000 Canadians have resorted so far to euthanasia. Many have come to believe that ending their lives is noble … the ultimate dignity.

For Catholics, none of what I’ve described is true dignity. Dignity is inherent. It can’t be taken away. It means we are children of God. It means that the man with Down Syndrome, the great female athlete, the woman in a wheelchair and the young person fighting cancer all have the same dignity. All have their dignity because they are created by God and loved by God. Jesus suffered on the cross in the greatest act of selfless dignity, for everyone. But how dignified did He look to the crowd that mocked His seeming lack of control?

This false idea of dignity is literally killing us. We must take back its true meaning and remind others where our dignity comes from. There is nothing wrong with dressing well or having money. There is nothing wrong with taking a great trip or excelling at some sport. There is nothing wrong with success — except when it becomes the be-all and end-all of our existence. When we turn it into the Golden Calf.

Then we are utterly lost.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Catholic Register.)

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