The Pope's Unsettling Message

Pope Francis delivers his blessing at the end of his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesda
Pope Francis delivers his blessing at the end of his weekly general audience, in St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Wednesday, June 24, 2015. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

As if Republicans did not have enough to worry about with Donald Trump, the visit of Pope Francis to the United States in September, which includes an unprecedented address to a joint session of congress, may portend even more trouble.

In the long run, Pope Francis' message could also be as unsettling to liberals as it is to conservatives.

For Republicans, the pope's visit in September is likely to cause acute discomfort. As Suzanne Goldenberg wrote in the British Guardian last month, "Leading figures on the American right are launching a series of pre-emptive attacks on the pope... hoping to prevent a mass conversion of the climate change deniers who have powered the corps of the conservative movement for more than a decade."

The pope's approach to other issues will likely be equally disturbing. "The pope will come humbly but will talk clearly," said Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, a leading adviser to Francis. On immigration and social and economic justice as well as climate, Pope Francis will be outspoken. "The desert cannot be a tomb or a cemetery," Maradiaga said, referring to the hazardous journey of many immigrants and the need for policies that are generous and welcoming.

Maradiaga also said the pope is sure to raise questions of inequality and justice. "Capitalism is not a God. The system is fostering tremendous inequalities," he explained.

If Pope Francis challenges pieties of the right, his message also challenges the left.

In 1902 in Democracy and Social Ethics the settlement house leader Jane Addams warned that a class of progressive "experts" was emerging who saw themselves outside the life of the people. In her view, detached expertise reinforced existing hierarchies based on wealth and power and created new forms of hierarchical power that threatened the capacities of communities to determine their destinies.

Over time, outside expert claims to unique authority based on positivist views of science and technology reshaped fields from education and health to race relations and economics, as well as professional practices in general which claim the imprimatur of science.

Andrew Jewett describes the dynamic of outsider knowledge based on positivist theories of science in Science, Democracy, and the American University. "The scientists who powerfully shaped the national discourse on science in the middle years of the twentieth century drew a sharp line between science and society," he says. "They sought to insulate the research process [as]... a space untouchable by both the state and the horizontal communication between citizens."

Leaders in today's progressive politics embody this stance of outside fixer often with the best of professed intentions. Thus Donna Shalala, former Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, later the most progressive member of the Clinton cabinet, and recently appointed head of the Clinton Foundation, illustrated this dynamic in a famous speech calling for renewal of the Wisconsin Idea in 1989, "Mandate for a New Century." Shalala called for universities to be at the forefront of action on problems such as racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental degradation, hunger and war.

She also redefined the older Wisconsin Idea into an unabashedly elite perspective. As she put it, "The ideal [is] a disinterested technocratic elite... society's best and brightest in service to its most needy [dedicated to] delivering the miracles of social science [on society's problems] just as doctors cured juvenile rickets in the past" (1989). In this framework the general population, no longer productive citizens, are reconceived as clients and consumers serviced by experts, while citizenship itself is narrowed to practices like voting, volunteering, or petitioning government for redress.

Her perspective is far from unique. It is embodied in one-way approaches to change in fields such as "translational science," in which experts usually claim the mantle of science to design and implement policies with little role for the lay citizenry except compliance. With exceptions, such as the research partnerships of the Kettering Foundation, the power patterns of such approaches have remained invisible in public discussion.

Pope Francis' Laudato Si' dramatically changes the game by putting the hierarchical power of technocracy front and center. Francis describes the shift that prioritizes informational approaches for dealing with human problems over relational and cultural approaches. "The basic problem," he argues in the section, the Globalization of the Technocratic Paradigm, "is the way that humanity has taken up... an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm [that] exalts the concept of a subject, who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object." This is positivism. "Many problems of today's world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the method and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shaped the lives of individuals and the workings of society."

The result is a huge concentration in power. Technological transformations "have given those with the knowledge, and especially the economic resources to use them...dominance over the whole of humanity and the entire world."

If the analysis is unsettling, the implications of this critique hold some measure of hope -- if the people act. As Pope Francis said in a speech to popular movements gathered in Bolivia, on July 9, "I would like to repeat: the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize."

In this spirit, we need to take the opportunity of Francis' visit in September to begin to organize in new ways and on a new scale to address our mounting problems. In the process we could well revitalize the democratic way of life.


Harry Boyte edits Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt, 2015), with many contributions on the democratization of technocratic power and the recovery of the democratic purposes of education.