Editorial: The flight of dignity

Who would have thought that just four months after Malaysia Flight 370 disappeared without a trace, the world would be captivated by yet another air-based tragedy? But that indeed has been the case.

On July 17, Malaysia Flight 17 crashed into a field in eastern Ukraine, believed to be downed by a surface-to-air missile purportedly launched by pro-Russian separatists. Though it’s hard to imagine a worse occurrence than 298 innocent civilians — including 80 children — losing their lives, what happened during the next four days was downright bone chilling.

For days after the airline crashed, the world watched with horror at the shocking lack of attention given to the bodies of the men, women and children who had lost their lives. Scattered around a 15-mile crash site, flesh began to decompose as personal belongings were looted, and proper officials and medical professionals were denied access to the wreckage by heavily armed Russian rebels.

Flight 17 and the subsequent lack of care for the dead has reminded the world what it looks like when that respect for life is denied.

What looked like a scene from a fictitious action thriller instead was a grim and gruesome reality unfolding at what seemed to be a painstakingly slow rate. World leaders and officials spoke out with what soon became a familiar refrain centered on one word — “dignity.” Malaysian officials protested the treatment, demanding the bodies be treated with “dignity and respect.” Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, added: “Those who were killed deserve to be treated with dignity and their families are crying out, as we have heard, for closure.” President Barack Obama, too, emphasized the importance of treating the dead respectfully. “That’s the least that decency demands,” he said. “Families deserve to be able to lay their loved ones to rest with dignity.”

The word “dignity” — which technically means “a state of being worthy of honor or respect” — is a universal mainstay for Catholics. It is referenced in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and finds a welcome home on both sides of the Faith’s great ideological divide. Whether advocating for the unborn or being a champion for the poor or the immigrant, Catholics generally can agree that treating each human person with dignity and respect is a fundamental Gospel value.

As this week’s In Focus (Pages 9-12) illustrates, that tenet of faith pertains also in the final stages of life, no matter how difficult and jarring it may be to watch a loved one grow old and physically and mentally deteriorate. But as increasing numbers of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide laws settle into place around the world and even in the United States, this dignity of the elderly is being threatened. In some cases — such as in Belgium or the Netherlands, for example — “treating” the elderly by killing them, which many call an act of mercy, has almost become commonplace. We hasten death, rather than let life play out in accordance with God’s will.

But this is not to what the Gospel calls us. This is not taking care to protect God’s great gift of life with honor or respect. This, in short, is not dignity.

The tragic incident of Flight 17 and the subsequent lack of care for the dead has reminded the world what it means to be respectful of human life, and what it looks like when that respect is denied. As Pope Francis wrote in July 2013, “Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation ... and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”

In other words, of dignity.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor