Gilbert Meilaender’s recent Commonweal piece, commenting on a disturbing “death with dignity” story of an ex-priest from Canada that was featured on the front page of the New York Times, is worth reading and re-reading. The article makes great points about the limits of rituals to “deal with” death, and comments again on the inability to hold off the slippery slope inherent in this social problem, as Cardinal Eijk of Utrecht explains vividly in light of recent movements in the Netherlands to allow for “healthy people suffering nonmedical conditions such as ‘loneliness, bereavement, limited mobility and decline from old age’ to be helped to die by a nonprofessional ‘assistant-in-suicide.’”

But I was also struck by his fundamental framing of the problem in terms of a tension between the autonomy grounds for death with dignity and the compassion grounds for it. This, I think, is a crucial framework for a wide array of social issues, and it is of particular concern because it borrows – but distorts – the language of Christian ethics.

I am especially interested in the appeal to “dignity.” Like Meilaender, I admit that I found the bizarre ritual mash-ups in this drama to be… embarrassingly lacking in dignity. But setting aside that impression, one gets a sense that the dignity of the person understood by the story’s protagonist is a kind of sovereignty of the person. Or better, a divinity of the self, in which the self is invested with authority over sacred traditions, over rituals, over one’s own life.

Meilaender recommends a healthy dose of Calvinism. That can be humbling. But I want to explore a bit how we might distinguish what we mean by the dignity of the person and the divinizing of the person – which, after all, the Christian tradition suggests is the root of sin (even as it paradoxically promises this end, insofar as the self is given away in service to God’s kingdom. It was Christ’s sacrifice of his own will that led to his exultation.). The Christian understanding of dignity does include freedom, but not a negative freedom – the freedom to define good and evil – but rather the freedom to cooperate in the realization of the good. This dignity obviously includes the possibility of sin – and that’s where the need for genuine compassion comes in.

It’s easy enough to go on and say something like the dignity of the person has to respect limits if it is not to turn into divinity. I think the typical societal understanding is that “limit” involves not interfering with or harming the dignity of others. But this ultimately sets up a problematic picture: we are all our own mini-gods, utterly sovereign in our own spheres, but then somehow my choices can’t “harm” others. It is famously hard to control this. What actions of mine “harm” others? Does the use of a smartphone support a disastrous cultural change? Does my position as a professor involve me in perpetuating social inequalities? Does your shrimp cause human trafficking? The list is endless. Of course, we should look at such issues. But the underlying picture – of autonomous, self-defining individuals – is just false.

We are in fact social creatures, and (to push a little bit further into Christian eschatology) we are all part of one human family. That’s ultimately why pictures of completely unlimited human freedom – the freedom to do whatever I want – aren’t actually an ideal, but an obvious disaster. That’s not dignity. Freedom itself is not dignity.

So we should resist discussing the difference between dignity and divinity by imposing “limits.” Rather, dignity is rooted in being who we are. “We.” In this case, dignity involves some degree of recognition that we are human creatures (together) with a teleologically-oriented nature. This should give us much stronger clues to where we might look in order to understand the difference between (true) dignity and (distorting) divinity.

  • First, we are linguistic creatures. Language is for communication, for communion. It is incompatible with our nature, individually and collectively, to say whatever we want. We have to speak truthfully. Pretending we have utter sovereign to define truthful and false speech – that’s divinizing the person, and in fact, it is dangerous, destructive… and by the way, it ends up looking VERY undignified.
  • Second, we are material creatures. We depend collectively on creation for our material lives, and we don’t have complete sovereignty over that. Believing in absolute private property is divinizing the self. So is believing we can engineer our way out of any problem we might create… and no one (no one “important”?) will get hurt. Understood properly, this isn’t an expression of our divinity. It looks undignified. It’s a materialism and consumerism that is childish and silly.
  • Third, we are sexual creatures. Questions about how to characterize dignity versus divinity are especially fraught in this area. I elsewhere raised some difficult questions about the way in which transgender identity can seem like a divinization of a disembodied sense of self… a distinctly different questions from that of same-sex relationships. Should people have compassion with those who struggle with gender? Most certainly. Respect, sensitivity, and compassion. But the existence of struggle cannot resolve the questions. There’s struggle in the above two cases, too. Christians should be compassionate toward rich people who spend excessively on themselves, toward those who abuse the planet, toward those who are so caught up in a web of their own fantasies that they can barely realize what “truth” is. But “compassionate” may not always mean affirming. As I said before, the deeper question for everyone is the extent to which our society treats questions of individual gender and sexuality as ultimate – in ways that, when we lack control in determining them, we seem to lose ourselves. Is it a loss of dignity or is it forsaking the divinized, sovereign self?
  • And certainly there is struggle in the fourth set of cases, where we recognize we do not have sovereignty over life and death, even our own. Our dignity is to be living creatures ultimately dependent on one another and on God, and so we do not exercise this kind of ultimate sovereignty. It’s a good argument against capital punishment. It’s a good argument against abortion. It’s a good argument against suicide. Meilaender quotes a student discussing a family suicide: “He didn’t just kill himself, he killed a part of everyone else.” Are we one family or not?

If we have reason to be unusually alarmed at this social moment, it’s because – due perhaps to generations of choices leading up to this point, and not simply to a few “enemies” of today – the status of these four pillars of human dignity are looking extremely shaky. Arguments for dignity which ignore truthfulness, material finitude, biological sex, and the fragility of life aren’t arguments for human dignity; they’re arguments for human divinity. As such, Christians ought to reject them wherever they are found on the partisan spectrum.

Or at least I’d like to see the counterclaims.