Rev. Bechina speaks on pursuit of truth and academic freedom

For 11 years, Notre Dame’s Nanovic Institute for European Studies has hosted the Keeley Vatican Lecture to strengthen the university’s relationship with the Holy See and attempt to understand Notre Dame’s mission as a Catholic university. Reverend Friedrich Bechina, FSO, Undersecretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, presented his lecture “The Holy See’s High Education Policy from St. John Paul II to Pope Francis” on April 6.

The lecture focused on the uniqueness of Catholic education, and the lessons Rev. Bechina learned over the years working for the Holy See. Now, according to Rev. Bechina, higher education has shifted its focus to student-centered learning and the outcomes of education, rather than the process itself. The lecture sought to pinpoint just what Catholic education should entail, and how universities should face the growing pressures of the world.

Rev. Bechina is originally from Vienna and served as an officer in the Austrian army. He later went on to study theology, philosophy, and economics, first in Vienna, and then at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome, where he earned his doctorate in 1997. There, he wrote an award-winning thesis entitled “The Church as the Family of God.” He became undersecretary for the Congregation for Catholic Education in 2013 after working in the international affairs of the Congregation, which concern higher education, since 2005.

In the opening of his lecture Rev. Bechina said, “The university is bound to truth, not the opinion of the day.” He stressed the challenges Catholic universities face with differing cultures and modern developments, including the globalization of higher education. Rev. Bechina pointed out areas around the world experiencing changes, such as Africa, where more and more young people go away to receive an education and end up staying away.

Yet Rev. Bechina emphasized the dangers of building a wall around the Catholic university. As missionaries seeking to further the Catholic message, Catholic universities should engage in a dialogue with the world. Rev. Bechina cited the Holy See’s 2011 agreement with Taiwan, in which Taiwan’s Ministry of Education agreed to recognize Catholic university degrees.

Rev. Bechina then examined the views of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope St. John Paul II, and Pope Francis regarding academic freedom within Catholic universities. Rev. Bechina referenced Benedict XVI’s 2013 World Youth Day address in Madrid, in which the pontiff discussed his own experience during two world wars. He experienced first-hand the terrors of war, but as a professor at the University of Bonn, Benedict XVI said that he and other professors were driven by a “desire to respond to the deepest and most basic concerns of our students. This experience of a ‘Universitas’ of professors and students who together seek the truth in all fields of knowledge … helps us to see more clearly the importance, and even the definition, of the University.”

Rev. Bechina also remarked, “Many people who have served in my position would have seen academic freedom as kind of a threat and its invocation a kind of attack, but it is increasingly becoming our stronghold. Academic freedom must be associated with the free choice of faith. Nobody can be obliged to believe, because faith depends on a human act of trust, and the same is true for the discovery of truth.”

Addressing the discovery of truth at universities, Rev. Bechina again quoted Benedict XVI’s address at World Youth Day in 2013. Benedict XVI stated, “Truth possesses us and inspires us. In intellectual and educational activity the virtue of humility is also indispensable, since it protects us from the pride, which bars the way to truth.” Rev. Bechina added that Pope Francis, known for his engagement with the world, stresses the inevitability of taking risks in education. Responding to a question at the World Congress in Rome organized by the Congregation for Catholic Education in 2015, Pope Francis said education “means learning to walk. The true educator must teach managed and reasonable risk.”

Rev. Bechina closed his lecture with a simple but poignant reminder of hope’s role within the Catholic university. For Rev. Bechina a lack of hope is the source of many of today’s problems. A university, Rev. Bechina emphasized, should be a place of hope, in which academic subjects lead the students to look beyond. He ended by saying that the students who encounter hope “will be able to change the world for the better … and hope has a name—Jesus Christ.”

Sarah Ortiz is a freshman studying PLS and living in Lewis Hall. She is really excited to be the new Religion & Ethics editor next year, but will miss the wonderful senior editors. She can be reached at