Theocratic government

I’m currently reading The Handmaid’s Tale since it is a part of my school’s literature syllabus. This question particularly piqued my curiosity: How will a Theocratic Catholic government fare in the world (excluding Vatican City)?

It would be impossible to say. Excepting Vatican City and the Papal States, there is no tradition if a theocracy in Catholic countries. It popped up after the reformation in protestantism, but never Catholicism. And the Papal States and Vatican City are a particular case, only has existed to protect the Church from caesaropapism, which was a problem in the east (and again in protestantism).

Theocracy and Catholicism really do not mix.

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Agreed. For some reasons some people who are ignorant of history think that if the Catholic Church could they would establish a Theocratic government. However this goes against church teaching. For example a priest is prohibited by canon law for running for a political office and for very good reasons. Keep in mind that when the Church’s secular power was at its height and it probably could have formed a theocratic government…it didn’t. The Church recognizes that civil governments have different mission than the Church and should not be the same entity. (Though our civil governments really need to be taking a closer look at the Church on how to run something)

The only Christian Theocratic governments I am aware of are Protestant (Ex. Calvinist Genoia) or technically England (Because in Anglicanism the King is the head of the Church)

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That is not accurate.

If “Theocracy” is understood as having the state run by religious institution, there have been some states ruled by monastic orders, for example, the state of Teutonic Order (actually called “Ordensstaat” in German) in Prussia. There have been some prince-bishoprics, like the ones ruled by archbishops of Mainz, Trier and Köln, who were also electors of Holy Roman Empire. And Archbishop of Gniezno was the interrex of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (more or less, he usually took functions that the king would have during the interregnum; then again the king was not very powerful).

And Florence under Savonarola might be a somewhat different example.

See, for example,,


I think that question was largely answered during the Middle Ages with mixed results.

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The Papal States were a series of territories in the Italian Peninsula under the direct sovereign rule of the Pope from the 8th century until 1870 when the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia unified the Italian Peninsula. At one point, the Papal States covered most of the modern Italian regions of Lazio, Marche, Umbria and Romagna, as well as portions of Emilia. And of course, it was quite theocratic. Additionally, the Papacy was tied heavily with other heads of state throughout the Renaissance, and since there was but one religion in Western Europe up until late in the Renaissance, the laws of these kingdoms and empires had their basis in the same theology as the Papal States. This is one reason why later on during the Enlightenment, Jefferson was obsessed with the idea of separation of church and state in the formation of the the new American Republic. History gives account of the kind of governments these theocracies produced, and people like Jefferson were intent on avoiding it.

All the best,

It is better for the Church not to exercise political power. A lot of bad things can come from it as history shows. Better to be independent and devoted to the spiritual needs of the flock.

Technically, England is NOT Theocratic in its government. The Monarch (Queen Elizabeth II) is Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith. She is the constitutional monarch of the government, which is also parliamentary. Not even close to a Theocracy.

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Thanks for the links regarding Catholicism and Theocratic government. I will read up on them.

I think there is a lot of confusion between a Theocratic state and a state run by people all of the same religion. In the beginning of the Dark Ages the rulers were either Pagan or recently converted from Paganism. During that time and all the way up through the Middle Ages the state always looked to take precedence over the Church especially with the big emerging Empires, for example Spain and France. The Protestant Revolution of course formalised this by running their own church and cutting out Catholicism altogether. I think the church’s power during this time was usually at the mercy of civil rulers.

In saying that though I think a lot of the emerging countries borrowed from the canon law for their domestic law, both in the principles and in the processes which was one reason Europe became so successful.

Don’t you mean technically the UK is, but functionally it isn’t? Just because the monarchy isn’t absolute doesn’t change the fact that the monarchy is both a part of the church and the state. Also, aren’t there Anglican bishops in the House of Lords? Looks like a quasi-theocracy (however benevolent) either way.

I’m trying to think, what other theocracies exist today, even if only in degree? I have the UK (sort of), Vatican City, and Iran. Any others?

Even today the Bishop of Urgell is the Co-Prince of Andorra. He and the Pope himself are the last two remaining prince-bishops from a long tradition of bishops who are also temporal rulers. I don’t know where people are getting the idea that theocracies haven’t been a part of Catholic Church history.

England is not run by Church Law. Or Halacha. Or Sharia. Nor by a religious Autocrat. It has a State Religion (like Sweden) and run by the Monarch who is Defender of the Faith, etc.

Think Iran. Think Gilead. Think the old LDS government.

Interestingly, the Queen’s official title as Queen of Canada also includes “Defender of the Faith” despite the fact that Canada does not have an established religion / church and is officially a secular federation.

The UK is neither “technically” nor “functionally” a theocracy. First of all, the UK includes Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. Scotland’s national church is the Church of Scotland, of which is independent of the government. In Wales, the Anglican Church was disestablished, so there is no connection between church and state.

The only place where it could even be argued that there once was a theocracy is in England, where the Church of England is a state church, but there are many problems with calling England a theocracy.

The monarch is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, so in theory, the secular ruler has ultimate responsibility for the governance of the church under God. This is different from a theocracy, in which the secular state is controlled by the religious leader. It’s the opposite. The state is not subordinate to the church, but the church is subordinate to the state. At least in theory. Today, the CofE is functionally independent of the state. The Queen’s role as Supreme Governor is largely ceremonial.

Yes, but when England was Catholic, bishops also sat in the House of Lords. That didn’t mean England was being ran by the Catholic Church. It reflects the medieval idea that society is made up of 3 estates: the common people, the aristocracy and the clergy. Some bishops sit in the House of Lords to represent the Lords Spiritual, the leaders of the clerical estate.

It’s not. The English Reformation established the secular government’s control over the church. The king through Parliamentary legislation replaced the Papacy as the ultimate ecclesiastical authority in England. It did not create a theocracy, rather it made the Church subordinate to the secular authorities.

Did you mean Geneva? John Calvin taught a type of separation of church and state in which the church and state operated in distinct spheres but both had a responsibility to uphold true religion. While the Reformed Church had a lot of influence, it was not governing Geneva. There was a civil government that was distinct from ecclesiastical governance. For example, church authorities could excommunicate but they could not arrest or execute someone.

This was not much different from the way the Catholic Church operated in the Middle Ages. It exerted influence and had many privileges, but at the end of the day in most places, the state and the church were distinct organizations that cooperated together.

@ComplineSanFran & @ltwin,

I did some searching and it looks like the definition of theocracy I was laboring under was too broad. I learned a new term in doing so! Ecclesiocracy, which apparently better describes the UK (in technicality not functionality), and to an extent, the German prince bishops in the past. Current theocracies still seem to only be the Vatican, Iran, and apparently Mt. Athos, which I had no idea was in anyway autonomous. We could throw in the Tibetan government in exile if we’re including generally unrecognized states.

Iran is the first that comes to mind.

The government-in-exile of Tibet?

Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Mauritania are based on Islamic theocracy.

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