‘Dignitatis Humanae’ and the Freedom to Serve

COMMENTARY: The Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious liberty is just as important today as it was when it was promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI 50 years ago today.

Pope Francis highlighted one of many examples of Catholic service when he made a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington on Sept. 23.
Pope Francis highlighted one of many examples of Catholic service when he made a surprise visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Washington on Sept. 23. (photo: CNA/Little Sisters of the Poor)

During Pope Francis’ visit to the United States this fall, the Holy Father highlighted the role of religious freedom in American life. On the South Lawn of the White House, Pope Francis urged American Catholics “to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it.”

And in Philadelphia, the Holy Father gave an impassioned speech devoted to religious liberty, in which he said, “At the heart of [religious traditions’] spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and all human rights.”

Pope Francis repeatedly emphasized that the heart of religious freedom is the dignity of the human person.

The Holy Father’s words are especially poignant at this time as we mark the 50th anniversary of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom.

Dignitatis Humanae declares that “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person” (2). The document goes on to state that “the social nature of man and the very nature of religion afford the foundation of the right of men freely to hold meetings and to establish educational, cultural, charitable and social organizations, under the impulse of their own religious sense” (4).

Thus, Dignitatis Humanae strongly advocates for the freedom to serve communities via schools, charities and other organizations — in accordance with religious convictions.

Faithful Catholics have for centuries — even millennia — followed the Gospel mandate to serve “the least of these.”

In the United States, this service takes many forms. Pope Francis highlighted two such examples in Washington, when he visited the Little Sisters of the Poor, who serve the elderly poor, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, which serves the homeless and other people in need.

Both the Little Sisters and Catholic Charities seek to continue serving the needy, but their work has been threatened by the federal government, which seeks to levy substantial fines against them if they decline to facilitate insurance coverage of morally objectionable drugs and devices. The Little Sisters, Catholic Charities and other faith-based entities have challenged this regulation on religious-freedom grounds, and the U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing their cases.

At the state level, some governmental agencies recently have threatened the work of the Church in resettling refugees who are themselves fleeing religious persecution. For example, the state of Texas has recently instructed all refugee-related agencies — including faith-based agencies like local Catholic Charities entities — to report any plans of resettling Syrian refugees. The state has asked that if these agencies are in the process of resettling such refugees, then they should “please discontinue those plans immediately.”

Dignitatis Humanae warns against this kind of governmental restriction on the work of the Church. The document states that “constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations” (1).

In the U.S., we are fortunate to have laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which holds the government to a high standard before it can restrict the free exercise of religion.

But as Pope Francis told us just recently, we should remain “vigilant” to ensure that our freedom is not threatened or compromised, so that Catholics can continue to serve local communities without fear of government restrictions on the work that living out the Gospel demands.

Archbishop William Lori is the archbishop of Baltimore and chairman of the

 Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.