There are several things wrong with the bishop’s objection to Brittany Maynard’s choosing to die. First of all, the term ‘dignity’ is a highly contested one, but Ignacio plays on two completely separate and unrelated meanings of the word. In Roman Catholic theology (and I think this is a new use of the word, though I have not been able to establish this), ‘dignity’ refers simply to the “God-givenness” of life. It does not refer to dignity in the strict sense, which consists in a person’s feeling of respect for herself (given present circumstances), and the respect paid to her by others (as opposed to pity, for example).
Dignity, in the sense relevant to Brittany’s decision, is acting according to one’s own will and in accordance with one’s own sense of value as a person.
Catholics will say that human life itself has dignity, but this is a far cry from the individual’s sense of her own dignity. What Catholics mean, I take it, is value, and they think of the value of life as infinite. However, someone in Brittany’s situation cannot feel that what the future holds (especially in the case of a brain tumour, than which there is perhaps no more excruciatingly painful way to die) will be characterised by dignity in the personal sense, however much Ignacio might hold a life characterised by unbearable pain to have infinite value.
Besides, how he supposes that Brittany would have been able to carry out the church’s mission at the point of direst pain is simply beyond me. I have sat and watched helplessly a patient with brain cancer die. Her last hour was one long, uninterrupted scream, the doctor standing by meanwhile saying defensively that there was nothing he could do. How someone in that situation is supposed to carry out a mission to others in that condition is simply beyond me, and Ignacio does not explain, because he can’t. These are rote proclamations based on the church’s dogma, and do not reflect the actual situation of people in such conditions.
I think the term ‘dignity in dying’ is an appropriate one, for most people’s deaths are not dignified. In my life as a priest I saw only one person die with what I could describe as dignity. The rest simply crumbled away into pain and a final struggle for air, or continuous vomiting. How aware they were I did not know, but their lack of dignity was the most striking thing about their deaths. Many relatives and loved ones stay away because they “didn’t want to remember [their loved one] in such distress.” They wanted to remember them as the people they really were, people with dignity, acting from their own centre, and in accordance with their own desires and values. It is a scandal that the church cannot see beyond the repetition of its dogma, rather than consider with compassion what might be the best way for a person to die, given their own choice in the matter. Forcing someone to die in a manner not of their own choosing is slavery (as Montaigne aptly said). It is interesting to see that the church still maintains this residual commitment to the enslavement of those who are most in need of freedom.