The Real Meaning of Dignity

This blog was inspired by several verses in Proverbs that describe all that a woman is and could be  – including “clothed in strength and dignity.” Often this verse is used to bolster arguments for modesty – especially in actual clothing we wear. But just as we can “put on Christ,” we can “put on” the metaphorical clothing of the attributes of strength and dignity. But what does dignity actually mean?

Two cases in the news recently highlight the need to come to a better understanding of the concept of dignity.

Case 1: The photos of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge

Most people have heard about the invasion of privacy perpetrated against this lovely young woman – European publications have published photographs of her unclothed – photographs she never gave permission to have taken or published with her name attached to them. In a recent interview, the editor of Chi, the Italian magazine that went overboard in its coverage of the un-covered royal, had this to say:

“They are natural pictures, there is no morbidity about them, there is nothing that could affect the dignity of the person involved, the Duchess of Cambridge.”

Really? We’ll get to the concept of human dignity in a minute.

Case 2: “Death with Dignity” Act in Massachusetts

This November voters in Massachusetts will get to decide if doctors should be allowed to prescribe medication that will end the lives of their terminally ill patients.  It is so called because proponents believe that in a person’s final days, he or she is “stripped of dignity” (The Next Generation) and that by providing pills that will end a patient’s life, they are “providing dignity” (Massachusetts Death with Dignity Coalition). This presumes that there is no dignity in the person because they are dying. However, no one defines what “dignity” really is.

Actual, non-Catholic definitions of dignity

  • According to Merriam Webster online, it is “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.”

Case 1: What the Italian editor misses in his statement is that the publication of photos of a topless woman does not promote her as worthy, honored, or esteemed. It objectifies her…she is in the state of being gawked, embarrassed, and reduced to just her body parts. At least her lawyer gets this notion: “The Duchess is a young woman, not an object.”

Case 2:  If a dying person has been stripped of dignity, then they have been stripped of being worthy, honored or esteemed simply because they’re dying. How horrible is that – to presume that because some illnesses are painful or “messy,” that you, though being alive, do not have worth, honor, or respect? Telling you you’re better off ending your life  up to 6 months out from just a prognosis is what really strips away your dignity.

  • Also from Merriam Webster (#5): “a sign or token of respect”

Case 1: What publishing nude photos does is sell magazines to people (mainly men) who are not going to respect the nourishing potential or beauty of the human body in general, but to think very disrespectful thoughts of a woman they don’t even know.  The Duchess did not give her permission for someone to view her naked, much less her permission for the world to see them. It is the utmost disrespect to a person to do such a thing.

Case 2: The proponents of DWD believe that it is a sign of respect to not have people suffer through pain or “messy” symptoms of a terminal illness. But is it really a sign of respect to humanity to say “You’re better off dead.”? The true sign of respect would be to a) research cures to terminal diseases b) barring that, research ways to make them livable and not “messy” c) improve palliative care so that people have more time with loved ones, as opposed to less. Senator Ted Kennedy reportedly had a prognosis that would have qualified him for DWD pills.  He lived 15 months.

Actual, non-Catholic definitions of human dignity
The Italian editor brought up the notion of a person’s dignity…tying this characteristic to our very humanity.  Hence, more protracted definitions:

  • The basic premise of human dignity is that all human beings have the right to respect and ethical treatment (

Case 1: The Duchess is a human being. She has the right to respect. Did publishing those pictures give her respect? No. (See above.) Was she treated ethically when she woke to the news that magazines all over a continent were going to post public images of parts of her body that she normally covers up in public? No one asked for her permission, so no.

Case 2: Terminally ill people are people. See above for why they are not being respected. So is it ethical to start promoting the idea that people are better off dead than suffering when it comes at the expense of never learning how to reduce or eliminate the pain, “mess,” and cost of suffering?  Though the law’s proponents say that there are protections to prevent it from being abused, there is a legitimate concern that in the future pharmaceutical companies and insurers will find some loophole, some lobbyist, some amendment to encourage this option more so than natural death.

  • An individual or group’s sense of self- respect and self-worth, physical and psychological integrity and empowerment. (legal definition by

Case 1: Publishing those photos has destroyed the psychological integrity of the royal family, not bolstered. And just how is it empowering to women to know that at any time a magazine can publish photos of them without their permission. Such a thing actually makes one feel powerless.

Case 2: Telling terminally ill people that because suffering is hard, painful, and messy, there is no dignity, then really, they have no self respect or worth. Tey also do not have physical or psychological integrity. This is so important: this type of integrity is DIFFERENT than capacity or facility. This integrity means that your whole physical person and your whole make-up is not lessened simply because you have a disease or at 100%.  Some people may think it is empowering to choose how and when they die…but again, if you are offered the pills, someone is telling you that you don’t have the power to survive. So, one feels powerless. And so does the medical profession.

The above Web site outlines all the problems with the Massachusetts proposal. Other states have actual laws or will consider similar measures soon.
Oh, fine: What the Catholic Church says

You’re a person? You have dignity. From the start of your life at conception to the end of your life at death. Doesn’t matter how you were conceived or how you may die. You always have full dignity: respect, worth, honor, ethical treatment, integrity, and power.  They will not take that away from you.


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