Rev. Friedrich Bechina, undersecretary for the Vatican Congregation for Catholic Education, speaks on Catholic higher education

by Michael O. Garvey

Nanovic Institute’s Keeley Vatican Lecture given by Rev. Friedrich Bechina, F.S.O., undersecretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education Rev. Friedrich Bechina, F.S.O., delivers the Keeley Vatican Lecture

Rev. Friedrich Bechina, F.S.O., undersecretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education, gave the 2016 Keeley Vatican Lecture, titled “The Holy See’s Higher Education Policy from St. John Paul II to Pope Francis,” April 6 (Wednesday) in Visitation Hall of Remick Commons at the University of Notre Dame.

Father Bechina said he hoped “to share with you some of the lessons I have learned” in his 15 years of service in the Holy See under the three popes.

“The independence of the Holy See and its status as a sovereign entity gives us a set of privileges, or at least of freedoms to be active and present in the world of higher education,” Father Bechina said. “As such an entity, we have our own ministry of education, and as a minister of education I can speak in international gatherings on the same grounds and with the same status as my counterparts in other countries.”

Jointly responsible for more than 2,500 Catholic institutions of higher education, Father Bechina said that the congregation “can speak for our own system but we can also put ourselves in the shoes of people in countries worldwide. Like the Church herself, we are both local and universal at the same time, and these institutions comprise a sort of educational empire of which we can and should be proud.”

Father Bechina spoke of a shift in Catholic higher education’s discussion of academic freedom. “To be honest,” he said, “for most of the last century, 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.”

A native of Vienna, Father Bechina served as an officer in the Austrian army and studied economics, philosophy and theology in Vienna and later at the Gregorian Pontifical University in Rome, from which he earned a doctoral degree in 1997 for his prize-winning doctoral thesis, “The Church as the Family of God.”

After years serving in parishes in Austrian Diocese of Feldkirch, Father Bechina was appointed to the Congregation for Catholic Education, and in 2013 became its undersecretary. Father Bechina has since 2005 managed the congregation’s international activities in the area of higher education and represented the Holy See in relevant organizations and international initiatives.

Earlier on April 6, Father Bechina also presided and preached at Mass in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

The annual Terrence R. Keeley Vatican Lecture provides the Notre Dame community with the opportunity to interact with distinguished representatives from the Holy See and significant dioceses of Europe. Past lecturers have included Cardinal Angelo Amato, Cardinal Walter Kasper, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella and Archbishop Charles J. Brown, Apostolic nuncio to Ireland. The lecture is sponsored by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, an integral part of the new Keough School of Global Affairs.