Pope Francis, Deng and Gorbachev: How Do Nondemocratic Institutions Produce Reformers?

By Mike Dorf

Although it is too soon in his papacy to draw definitive conclusions, it now appears that Pope Francis is a genuine reformer who seeks to shift the focus of the energy of the Catholic Church from its "obsession" with sexual morality towards aiding the least fortunate.  And it appears that his reformist plans extend to other areas as well.  As I said, though, it's still too soon for a definitive assessment, as the Pope already appears to be walking back some of the implications for abortion of his interview with La Civilta Cattolica.

But let's suppose that the preliminary assessment turns out to be correct and that Pope Francis turns out to be a reformer.  If so, how did he become Pope?  After all, the College of Cardinals that elected him was packed with conservatives by his conservative predecessors.

The question applies to other contexts as well.  How did Deng Xiaoping become premier, and implement market-oriented reforms that abandoned communism in all but name?  What about Mikhail Gorbachev?  Broadly speaking, the question is this: How do nondemocratic institutions produce reformist leaders when advancement within the organizational hierarchy depends on ideological purity and loyalty to the existing leadership?  (Note that in lumping together the Catholic Church with communist governments I do not mean to imply that Catholicism and totalitarian communism are fundamentally similar; they are, however, similar in the way that now interests me.)

Consider a few, non-exclusive mechanisms for producing reformers:

1) Playing possum:  A reformist can be a reformist from day one but feign ideological purity for his entire professional life to get ahead, and then, once in power, implement his reform agenda.  This strategy of "deep cover" must take quite a personal toll, though, especially as most people who deploy it will not ascend to the top and so will spend their entire lives working for a cause they revile.

2) Change your mind: Someone might start out as an ideological purist but eventually come to see the dominant ideology as corrupt, bankrupt or merely misguided.  If the conversion occurs before this person ascends to the top leadership position, then he must play possum for a while until he gains that position.

3) Recognize that the emperor has no clothes: In some truly dysfunctional authoritarian systems, it is widely known that the system is rotten, but nobody dares to say so for fear of retribution.  In such a system, almost any new leader interested in doing so can implement reforms that his megalomaniacal predecessor would not have undertaken.  This phenomenon can be partial.  For example, Krushchev was very much a reformer relative to Stalin but he hardly abandoned the entire enterprise of Soviet communism.  Why not?  Partly because Krushchev himself remained committed to communist ideals but also because those around him did--as he learned to his chagrin when he was deposed in 1964.

4) Change to survive.  Some reformers reluctantly embrace the role to hold onto power.  Fearing either a popular revolution or a revolt of a reform-minded palace guard, they seek to pre-empt replacement by fashioning themselves the agents of change.

Into which of these patterns--or some other pattern--does Pope Francis fit?  We shall see.