Bishop Frank Dewane welcomed students and faculty of the Ave Maria School of Law to the Diocese of Venice Tuesday, telling them that while they are learning civil law, "our Lord tells us to adhere to laws that might be different than those of the world."
The law school began classes last month after relocating from Michigan, which Bishop Dewane said he knew was "a great deal of work and trial."
At a Mass at St. Agnes Church in Naples opening the law school's term, Bishop Dewane asserted strongly that religion has an essential role in public life.
"Our nation's founders, while opposing the establishment of a national church, did not object to the influence of various religious beliefs in the public sphere," Bishop Dewane said, adding that "individuals have a right to bring their values into the public square."
"How can one speak of a pluralistic, democratic society on the one hand and at the same time deny an individual the freedom to publicly affirm and act on his or own faith?"
Such expression of faith, Bishop Dewane said, is essential to a free society.
"Throughout history, totalitarian governments have attempted to separate citizens from faith on the grounds that allegiance to the state supersedes an individual's conscience," Bishop Dewane said. Pope Benedict XVI, he said, warned of "a new dictatorship, one that he has termed the dictatorship of relativism, where each and every moral value is equally relative but no objective moral value can ever be applied."
Bishop Dewane said the country's civil legal system has great injustices such as "attacks on the dignity of the human person . . . attacks on the inalienable right to life, the centrality and importance of marriage -- the union between one man and one woman -- and the need to nurture and protect the most vulnerable members of our society."
"A society whose moral laws are dictated only by the whim of a majority is not necessarily and always a free society," Bishop Dewane said.
As Catholic lawyers and law students, he said, they may not "always be received with open arms by your colleagues" for staying true to the Catholic faith.
Again quoting Pope Benedict, Bishop Dewane said, however, that "it is inconceivable that believers should have to suppress a part of themselves, their faith, in order to be active citizens."
This was the second day that Bishop Dewane addressed students and faculty at an Ave Maria educational institution. Monday, he celebrated Mass opening the academic year at Ave Maria University.