Engaging Faith: Practical lesson ideas and activities for Catholic Educators

April 6, 2015

Lessons on Religious Liberty for the Theology Classroom

By Justin McClain

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the watershed Vatican II declaration on religious freedom Dignitatis Humanae: On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious, promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI on December 7, 1965. Within these last fifty years, there has been some notable progress, yet likewise significant setbacks, in terms of religious liberty both in the United States and throughout the world. This polemical topic is one that merits discussion in the high school theology classroom, provided that it is both appropriate to the intellectual preparedness of the students’ grade level and applicably relevant within the course’s curricular framework. This possibility of the discussion of specifics regarding religious freedom is particularly due to the numerous implications at the cross-curricular intersection of theology and social studies, not to mention other academic fields when available.

 In 2013, Janet Wigoff, chair of the Theology Department at Pope John Paul II High School in Royersford, Pennsylvania, developed the exceptionally noteworthy Religious Liberty and Catholicism in the United States: A Five-Day Mini-Unit (published by Ave Maria Press and available for free to teachers here as a PDF). In the couple of years since, there has been a heightened consideration of cases regarding religious liberty nationally, as we have seen in such scenarios as the situation surrounding the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana, threats to religious freedom in the District of Columbia, and other areas of concern. Meanwhile, internationally, there has been a marked increase in the violent persecution of Christians and other religious minorities in such areas as the Middle East, regions of the African continent, and parts of Asia.

High school theology teachers have ready access to plentiful resources for facilitating dialogue on matters related to religious liberty, whether from the perspective of the United States or the international community. However, it is vital to remember that proposed sources should be both objectively accurate and doctrinally sound, in order to ensure that students are provided with a fair portrayal of the breadth and significance of religious liberty. This latter point is particularly cogent since these students’ generation will one day have to defend true religious freedoms in the midst of the stark reality that, as Pope Francis affirmed at a June 2014 religious freedom conference (titled “International Religious Liberty and the Global Clash of Values”), “the persecution of Christians today is even more virulent than in the first centuries of the Church, and there are more Christian martyrs today than in that era.” Indeed, it is worthwhile to maintain insights into religious freedom in the face of both direct and indirect persecution, all the while juxtaposing such reflections with Christ’s words as they appear in John 15:20: “No slave is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” Ultimately, the Christian is called to evangelize in conjunction with the underpinnings of veritable religious liberty, in order to bring about a more peaceful society based on Jesus’ expectations as described in Matthew 5:14-16: "You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good dees and glorify your heavenly Father."

Please note the following resources that you can use to substantively enhance Liberty and Catholicism in the United States: A Five-Day Mini-Unit and the content of your lessons related to the key factors regarding rhetorical aspects of religious liberty in the third millennium.


Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs – Religious Freedom Project (provided by Georgetown University)

Cardinal Donald Wuerl Keynote Address – Religious Liberty in a Pluralistic Society (a YouTube video provided by the Berkley Center at Georgetown University, September 13, 2012)

Congress Urged to Act for Protection of Religious Freedom and Conscience Rights in the District of Columbia (provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, March 20, 2015)

Dignitatis Humanae: On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious (promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI, December 7, 1965)

The Freedom to Bear Witness (an address by Archbishop William Lori of the Archdiocese of Baltimore at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, November 15, 2014)

Indiana Bishops Respond to State Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a statement provided by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, April 1, 2015)

Issues and Action: Religious Liberty (provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops)

Letters to President Obama and Congressional Leaders Concerning Religious Freedom Violations in the Middle East (provided by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, February 23, 2015)

Nigerian Bishops Visit Refugees in Cameroon Who Fled Boko Haram (provided by the Catholic Herald / Catholic News Service, March 24, 2015)

Persecution of Christians (provided by the Archdiocese of New York)

Pope Francis Addresses Religious Freedom Conference (provided by Vatican Radio, June 20, 2014)

Religious Freedom Under Assault (provided by the Archdiocese of Washington)

Silencing the Church’s Voice (by Cardinal Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington, March 2, 2015)

Mr. Justin McClain is a Theology teacher at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland.


1 Lucy Fahrbach

July 4, 2016
Thank you, Justin, for your insights on religious liberty. We as educators are highly influential in helping our students understand these principles. God bless you.

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