Cardinal Joseph Bernardin has expressed keen "misgivings" about the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative -- often referred to as the "Star Wars" defense plan -- and assailed the "dramatic decline in the priority of human rights" as a key component of American foreign policy.

The remarks by the Catholic archbishop of Chicago came Thursday in a speech he was to deliver at a conference on American Religion and International Relations here and represented another in a series of rebukes the cardinal has issued against U.S. policies. The cardinal canceled his appearance because of illness, but his speech was read by an assistant.

Cardinal Bernardin, who has been a chief church spokesman against U.S. military policy, said the proposed Star Wars defense system could further escalate the arms race, asserting that he has "profound misgivings about projecting the arms race on a new frontier in space." The cardinal has criticized other weapons systems as counterproductive to arms-control negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Without mentioning the Reagan administration, the cardinal said there has been a "dramatic decline in the priority of human rights during the 1980s," and he called on religious leaders to exert moral influence to emphasize human rights as a test for foreign assistance.