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Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2024
The Observer

Vatican official explores Catholic higher education

As part of the 11th year of the Keeley Vatican Lecture series hosted by the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, Fr. Friedrich Bechina spoke Wednesday night about the role of Catholicism in higher education.

University President Fr. John Jenkins introduced Bechina, who was named the undersecretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education in 2013 by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and has represented the Holy See internationally in areas of higher education.

Bechina began his lecture by saying that problems and academic credits should not be the sole focus of an academic institution.

“One of the most significant changes in higher education today is a shift towards what we call student-centered learning,” Bechina said. “We should not emphasize too much on higher education on the input … but that we should more look on the processes of learning.”

Bechina spoke about his 15 years of service to the Holy See, which he described as a sovereign entity and a subject of international law that can maintain diplomatic relations. He said it was important to recognize the Holy See as an international entity.

“The Church is both universal and local at the same time,” Bechina said. “We represent 1,500 Catholic universities worldwide with, roughly speaking, 6 million students. This is kind of an educational empire that we have. We should be proud of what’s going on.”

Bechina said the type of education the students were receiving was what mattered, not just numbers.

“I think the important thing is that these 6 million students are educated differently,” Bechina said. “We believe that because of our Catholic identity we have more to offer.”

Bechina said the Church and the university are similar because of how they each retain their identity with the “pulse of time.”

“People say the two oldest institutions in the world are the Church and the university,” Bechina said. “Why have they been able to survive for thousands of years? Because they were able to change when it was time to change, without losing their identity.

“We are not bound to political programs … and the university has its own rules and is bound to truth and not to the opinion of the day.”

He said globalization was yet another factor that united the Church with higher education.

“The Church is the same one, universal Church in different languages and different cultures,” Bechina said. “And there is the same with higher education. Higher education is becoming more and more globalized.”

He talked about current academic issues such as the “brain drain,” which he described as the occurrence of talented individuals leaving a country to study and work abroad because of limited resources in their home country. Bechina went on to say the Holy See’s role is to navigate these issues and make sure the Church remains involved.

“The idea up to the year of 2000 was we have to defend our Catholic identity. That came with an image of a big wall around us that protects us from all negative influence outside of us,” Bechina said. “We are discovering that we are defending something that we lose. That the identity is vanishing within the strong walls built around it.

“We will not survive if we just defend our faith, but the faith will survive if we are missionaries and convince people who are able to take out the faith and engage in dialogue.”

He spoke about how the Church once viewed academic freedom as a threat to its institution, but says times have changed.

“Universities and Catholic higher education are protected on academic freedom and good argumentation,” Bechina said. “We have to understand what academic freedom is. Nobody can be obliged to believe something. Faith is an act for the free person. And so is the same for truth.”

Bechina said it was impossible to fully possess the truth, but countered that by saying that this impossibility does not mean society as a whole should give up on seeking it. He said humility as a virtue is indispensable, because pride can obstruct one’s vision of the truth.

“In truth a university has always been … called to be a house where one seeks the truth,” he said.

He used Pope Francis as an example of a world learner by talking about how Francis’ degree was in chemistry, which meant he had hands-on experience learning about “earthly reality.” He said Francis is an example of someone who used education to move forward.

“We should always have the courage in our universities to go forward anchored in our values, but at the same time always moving forward,” Bechina said. “Engage, mingle, be missionaries again.”

He said one of the biggest problems of today is a lack of hope and said Catholic universities should always make sure they are institutions that foster hope in their students.

“Catholic universities are the places that should provide more. It is the place where we open beyond these earthly realities,” Bechina said. “No one would do research without the hope to find something. So these attitudes are in a certain sense a preparation of hope. But it’s not enough.

“We should teach subjects that [go] beyond a good career, but prepare people to be people who make good decisions, who will be able to change the world for the better because they have encountered hope.”