Humility rediscovered

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 22 March 2013

The election of Argentinian Cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio to the papacy may not matter much to non-Catholics. But the public’s reaction to Pope Francis’ display of humility has a lot to say about our times.

The new pope lost no time in breaking with tradition. He refused to wear the most ornate of gowns and kept it simple. Instead of wearing a golden cross, he kept his old iron pectoral cross from his days as bishop. Pope Francis refused to stand on a pedestal when greeting the cardinals. He even called on his fellow countrymen not to travel to Rome for his installation mass but rather give to the poor.

Every signal the newly elected pope sent out in his first days in office contained a message of modesty. Hardly any article published about Francis failed to mention this new humble style of the papacy, though a few commentators were wondering how genuine this can be.

The reason we are so surprised is that humility is a lost and forgotten virtue. Its sudden rediscovery, in the Vatican of all places, thus comes as a genuine surprise.

Though most religions and many secular philosophers have praised humility and condemned pride, we have become largely indifferent to both. In fact, in the English language they sometimes appear interchangeable.

Thus when a speaker claims to be ‘deeply humbled’, what he actually feels may be quite the opposite. And the frequently used acronym ‘IMHO’ may have originally meant ‘in my humble opinion’, but most people now use it to preface telling others how wrong they are in a polite but patronising way. Genuine humility is much rarer.

To restrain yourself and not take yourself too seriously; to accept that one may be wrong and others right; to be tolerant of different opinions; and to meet in a spirit of equality and politeness – these are not religious demands but in fact the foundations of a free, civil society.

One of America’s greatest lawyers, Judge Learned Hand (1872–1961), put it so well in his famous ‘Spirit of Liberty’ speech:

“The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right. … [It] is the spirit of him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten – that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side-by-side with the greatest.”

With his humble ways, Pope Francis may set a good example for believers and non-believers alike.

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