It is perhaps not surprising that an American priest, Fr. John Courtney Murray, was one of the key contributors to Dignitatis Humanae, the most important document in modern times on the Catholic Church and religious freedom.

Together with then-Bishop Karol Wojtyla, another champion for religious freedom who would go on to become Pope John Paul II, Fr. Murray and the Second Vatican Council spelled out the Catholic Church’s support of religious freedom as one of the most basic rights necessary for human dignity.

In a new video, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops argues that understanding and promoting the Church’s teachings on this most basic freedom is now more important than ever, in light of recent threats to this right both at home and abroad.

“Religious freedom is one of the basic freedoms of the human person, because without religious freedom and freedom of conscience, all other freedoms are without foundation,” said Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development for the USCCB.

The video points to the ongoing legal battle between the Little Sisters of the Poor and the United States government as a prominent example of the threat to religious freedom in the United States. The federal government has exempted many other organizations’ employee health care plans from a requirement to provide contraception and drugs that can produce abortions. But it has no exemption for the Little Sisters of the Poor, who help run houses to care for the elderly poor.

“The Little Sisters of the Poor are being harassed by the United States government for a particular regulation in which the Obama administration deems it necessary that these sisters be compelled to participate in an insurance program that is against the precepts of their faith,” Archbishop Wenski said.

In the video, many supporters of the Little Sisters, including those whose family members have ben residents in nursing homes run by the Sisters, said that it would be a great loss should the government force these religious institutions to close, as the Sisters provide something beyond just practical care.

“There’s a spiritual component in the way that they live their lives that adds to not only the enrichment of the residents lives, but those who are in contact with them, who work with them, who just hear about them,” said Carmel Kang, whose family member was a resident with the Little Sisters.

“The high point of our life is to be with the dying,” Sr. Mary Bernard, LSP, said in the video.

“Life is a precious gift that we’ve each received,” she added. “And with that is the right to life, pursuit of happiness, liberty to practice your religion.”

Other experts in the video weigh in, warning that governments that lack religious freedom soon become manipulative and negligent of other freedoms.

“Reason divorced from faith — rationality — is simply an instrument to manipulate nature, and other human beings, and reality,” said Rev. Eugene Rivers II, a Pentecostal pastor and American activist.

“Which is why we’ve got to have faith, which gives us the ability to see beyond more limited conceptions of reason.”

Rick Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame Law School, warned that “governments that try to squash religious freedom tend to face political fragmentation, political disunity.”  

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chair of the USCCB’s Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, said that threats to religious freedom have started small in the United States. People might start to notice that what they do in Church is fine, but that it is socially unacceptable to bring their faith into the workplace or their business or the public square in any capacity, he said.

But the more violent forms of religious persecution that are happening abroad in places like China, Africa and the Middle East are all the more reason for people in the United States to strongly defend religious freedom, said Helen Alvare, a professor at George Mason University Law School.

“If we don’t have religious liberty, then there’s lots of people struggling with these issues who will never see a model to live out these teachings with integrity,” Alvare said.  

Pope Francis, like his predecessors, continues to speak about religious freedom in a way that is shaped by Dignitatis Humanae, Archbishop Lori said. It is a “document of hope,” he added, because it speaks not only of the human person’s right to be free of coercion from the government, but of the right to religious freedom as fundamental to human dignity.

“It is in accordance with their dignity as persons — that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility — that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth,” the document reads.

Understanding religious freedom through the teachings of the Church is important and necessary if it is to prevail in the United States, Archbishop Lori concluded.

“If we cherish it, protect it, know about it, and proclaim it, it will triumph.” The full video and a corresponding discussion guide are available on the USCCB’s website

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