A certain humility is increasingly apparent in the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict’s formal public apology in 2010 for the Church’s sex abuse scandals might well be viewed as the annunciation of a contrite Church. He sincerely apologized for the grievous suffering caused to victims and their families. And of particular significance, he owned up to the Church’s own failings in leadership, admitting serious mistakes, grave errors of judgment, and failures of leadership on the part of bishops. The apology marked a significant symbolic moment of contrition for the Church after many years of institutional evasion. It also conveyed Benedict’s recognition that the Church needs to engage in reflexive self-critique—“honest self-examination”—in an effort toward its renewal.

The Church’s commitment to renewal and relevance is being amplified by Pope Francis. In doing so, he displays a remarkable intellectual humility. His personal humility is well publicized (e.g., his decision not to live in the apostolic palace but in less ostentatious lodgings, and to be driven around in a small Fiat). But his intellectual humility may be even more formidable. This is a courageous humility, one that tends to be open to but not intimidated by either current realities or longstanding ideas. His communicative stance is explicitly open to wide-ranging discussion of societal issues as well as to some of the Church’s own doctrinal issues (an openness highlighted by the recent Vatican Synod on the Family). There are, of course, limits to this openness as underscored, for example, by his reiteration that the Church’s opposition to women’s ordination is a settled question not open to discussion; a contentious constraint on his humility.

Nonetheless, Francis repeatedly emphasizes that ideas and realities must be in continuous dialogue. This is a refreshing and ever-timely affirmation given that in religious, political, and intellectual circles particular ideas (and ideologies) are frequently used in ways that deny or obscure actual realities. Realities are presented as if their interpretations are self-evident and benignly independent of socially contextualized and power-infused ideas. An emphasis on the necessary dialogue between ideas and realities nudges a certain humility. One can have strong convictions about the certainty of some truth, but a simultaneous openness to ideas and realities—and to diversity in their interpretations—may inject some ambiguities and perhaps even make one change one’s mind. For many decades, a large majority of Americans expressed certainty that same-sex behavior is immoral. Yet, today, as a result of the interaction between changing ideas about sexuality and everyday lived realities showing the normalcy of LGBT individuals, same-sex marriage is legal and enjoys widespread support (including among two-thirds of Catholics and mainline Protestants).

Francis is a man of strong convictions. He argues forcefully, for example, that the twin societal crisis of economic inequality and climate change is a fundamental threat to humanity. He authoritatively elaborates this conviction using religious-based ideas about ethics of responsibility, the common good, and social inclusion, as well as extensively referencing scientific data on global warming itself and on its effects in exacerbating economic problems (see Laudato Si’ [LS]). Yet, notwithstanding the persuasive forcefulness of his reasoning, he also conveys humility—a humility that paradoxically strengthens rather than dilutes the authority of his convictions. He specifically points out, for example, that “. . . neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems” (Joy of the Gospel [JG] #184). He tends to present himself as one voice among many (not a magisterial interpretive authority), and in any case states: “Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question that affects the Church and the world” (JG #16). Well aware of the political conflict over global warming, and lamenting the denial of climate change evidence, he emphasizes the importance of honest debate, saying:

On many concrete questions, the church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. . . . (LS #61) . . . I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good. (LS #188)

In stressing the importance of reciprocal dialogue with and amid interpretive differences, Francis argues moreover that such dialogue is not to avoid conflict or to dilute differences. Conflict, rather, is to be negotiated. Thus he is clear that a consensus-building process is not a “facile syncretism” or a “diplomatic openness that says yes to everything in order to avoid problems” (JG #251). Rather, it entails dialogue with, and openness to understanding, the convictions of the other party. It is not about diluting one’s convictions but reflexively examining them in light of alternative views (JG #251). And in such dialogue, he tends to look inclusively to the arguments offered by others whose situational expertise and experiences are pertinent to the subject being addressed, including national bishops’ conferences, other religious leaders, theologians, scientists, intellectual and cultural figures, and importantly too, ordinary people—e.g., Catholics whose personal and family situations embody a dialogue between doctrinal ideas and everyday realities. He thus tends to convey that he is not looking to frame his convictions in the privileged interpretive authority of the Vatican but that he values the standpoints of a plurality of diverse others. Thus his intellectual humility, in my assessment, strengthens both the substance and the integrity of his convictions, even though he may fall short in convincing others to engage in dialogue with difference and in the dialogue between ideas and realities.

Francis’s communicative openness and the societal issues he addresses—economic inequality and global warming—align well with German social theorist Jürgen Habermas’s construal of post-secular society. Concerned about the apparent intractability of several contemporary problems—economic inequality, cultural antipathies, ecological damage, and a certain political indifference toward their remediation—he has called for greater attentiveness to the ways in which moderate religion may illuminate the ethical principles at issue. In looking to how religious ideas might contribute to the steering of a more inclusive society, one that more fully realizes the Enlightenment values of equality and participation, Habermas has not abandoned his long commitment to the centrality of secular reason in guiding public deliberative dialogue. Rather, he is conceding that a contrite modernity needs to self-critique its own blinkered use of reason—one that has gone off track by allowing so many societal problems to fester. He thus calls for a postsecular consciousness, one that recognizes the mutual relevance of the religious and the secular amid the settled reality of secularization, and which expects contemporary society to benefit from a reflexively self-critical dialogue between the religious and the secular. This turn to religion conveys a certain intellectual humility on Habermas’s part, because for many years he argued against the suitability of religious ideas to rational public discourse. Given religion’s non-rational elements and its concern with transcendence, he tended to see even moderate religion (despite its incorporation of reason) as a drag on reasoned deliberation rather than now, with postsecularity, as a culturally useful resource in pushing against the distortions of modernity.

In any event, as a normative stance, postsecular awareness requires intellectual humility on the part of religious and secular actors alike. It expects both religious and secular actors to be mutually reflexive about their own beliefs and assumptions, and to talk with (not simply about) one another. Notwithstanding secularization, secular citizens are expected to meet their fellow religious citizens as equals in the public sphere and not simply tolerate them but, in active dialogue, respect the possibility that their religious-based arguments may offer meaningful clarification on controversial questions. By the same token, religious actors cannot rely on their specifically religious authority or language. Rather, as well exemplified by Francis, they are expected to use arguments and reasoning that have cultural resonance irrespective of individuals’ religious backgrounds, and moreover, to appreciate that religious-based claims may be open to diverse interpretations (see Habermas, “Notes on post-secular society”). In sum, postsecular humility does not require abandoning either religious or secular convictions. But it holds out the tantalizing possibility that through their mutual self-critique in the necessarily ongoing conversation between ideas and realities, we might be nudged into building more inclusive institutional and societal practices.