What if the Church Ruled the World?

Asking “what if?” is an essential part of world building. What if Germany won the war? What if John Wilkes Booth had failed? What if bagels had never been invented? Single and sometimes insignificant events can have huge implications if you explore the lines of possibility. So the other day on reddit a user was asking for thoughts on a world where the Church dominated and it got me thinking about what such a world would look like. Before I begin I should say that this is not an especially detailed outline, you’ll notice that I also did not pick a point of divergence from our own timeline. This is because I wanted to focus more on the “big picture” concerns. Now, with that out of the way, let’s get into it.

First, could it actually have happened? Well, maybe, and that is a big maybe in my non-expert opinion. to start, the Church would had to come out of the Protestant Reformation mostly unscathed, and then it would have had to achieve at least the appearance of control over government. Then it would have had to greatly expand its influence outside of Europe which comes with its own set of challenges. Of course, in this timeline the Reformation might never had happened leaving the Catholic Church relatively unopposed in western Europe with Orthodox Christianity in the east left as the

If we take the view that world-spanning theocracy would have been possible then we will have to be a little loose in what we describe as “world spanning.”

Image medieval Europe. Do you picture devout citizens attending witch burnings and risking punishment for minor sins? Historically this was not the case and it would be unlikely to be true in our imagined theocracy. There were of course many instances of religious violence and punishment but that does not mean the church was all seeing or enjoyed universal jurisdiction. Making laws to regulate morality are one thing, enforcing them are another.

Next, let’s look at the medieval Catholic Church. In many places the Church owned a great deal of land and Bishops would rule over estates much like the rest of the aristocracy. Even up until the later half of the nineteenth century the Pope ruled a small area of Italy referred to as the Papal States. So from these examples we do have some idea of what it would look like if the Church ruled the world. It even caused some issues in 1848 when the Pope was forced to balance the popular pressure for a unified Italy with a reluctance to be seen to oppose the interests of the catholic Austrians.

Saint Peter's Basilica
The Catholic Church is still the largest Christian Church in existence with 1.7 billion members as of 2017. Source

We also see what it is like when the Church becomes a path to power. When joining the priesthood became a viable career path for younger sons of the nobility the Church found itself having to compensate for the tastes of these upper class acolytes and wound up declaring that beavers are fish so that they could be consumed on fast days. Changes like this allow the letter of Church law to be followed while forsaking the spirit of them and I think we would see a lot of this in a world-spanning theocracy.

Finally, we should look at the many smaller schisms, aberrations, and the “pagan” practices that were absorbed into Christian tradition. No matter how wide spread the Church became it was always difficult to completely erase pre-existing traditions.

From these three things we can draw a few conclusions.

  • Religion and politics rarely coincide.
  • When religious service becomes a pathway to power compromises will be made.
  • Uniformity is hard.

If we assume that it would be possible for the Church to have gained control of Europe before moving on to the rest of the world that control would be far from uniform. It is unlikely that the Church would be able to supplant all rulers and instead we might expect to see a Church-led coalition where direct Church power in strong in some places and weak in others and Church decrees are rarely carried out in full.

I think true devotees might be rare in this scenario. But I would not be surprised if a few leaders like Mozgus emerge in response to what they might see as rampant secularism. Source

Now, if we them assume that the Church expands outwards from Europe and conquers the rest of the world how will that go? We will have to assume that it occurs in piecemeal. In some cases European rulers will likely embark on wars of conquest in the name of the Church as a way to settle old scores and achieve personal goals. Especially in North Africa and the Middle East. Elsewhere, Church sponsored missionaries and trading expeditions will spread economic and religious influence to the rest of the world. The challenge here is really to figure out how long it takes and how tightly this Christianization of the world takes hold.

It should be safe to assume that the first few expeditions to the Americas will bring the same mix of old world diseases as they did in our timeline. Establishing both Catholicism and control in these lands were most of the prior inhabitants are dead or greatly weakened should not be terribly difficult, although it may take a few wars and centuries to see through to the end.

It’s the rest of the world that is the major stumbling block in my mind. Regions that have established powers, their own religions, and some measure of immunity to the diseases that follow the Europeans. Of course in our history the European powers managed to conquer or establish spheres of interest nearly everywhere they went so I think it is safe to assume that things would turn out the same way in this alternate timeline.

Remember though, in this scenario we’re not just looking at political or economic control of the region, but spiritual as well.

Religious domination will take considerably longer than other processes. In all regions there are bound to be missionaries and converts. In this scenario we are assuming that a Church-led coalition dominates Europe and the rest of the world. The Church’s claim to authority will rest on their ability to claim the majority of their allies’ subjects as members of the Church. As long as there are sizable populations of non-believers a ruler who wants to split with the Church can claim to be acting in the interest of these subjects when they do so. If this is the case then it might be in the Church’s best interest to settle for imagined rather than actual conversion. Getting subjects to play the part of good Catholics in public would give the Church the numbers it needs to keep bargaining with secular authorities.

What I think this will end up creating is a world where the Church cares more about the appearance of faith rather than actual piety. We have already established that making the Church into a political power will mean that the clergy will be split between those who joined out of faith and those who want power for themselves. We also see that mixing religion and politics will force one half to compromise at times to appease the other.

In this scenario I believe that political convenience and the inherent challenges that come with attempting to replace all native religions would lead to a world dominated by the Church and its allies where practicing one religion in public and another at home is normal and maybe even expect in some places. Even in areas where large segments of the population converts the new christians are likely to bring many of their former religious practices and customs with them.

We now have a world that began much like our own, where the Catholic Church was able to place itself at the head of a coalition of European powers before these same powers began colonizing the rest of the world in earnest. This marriage of religion and the state will force compromises on the Church.

Finally, let’s imagine what living in this world would look like.

If you live in this world, your town will either be under the direct control of the Church or controlled by a ruler who has some sort of allegiance to them. Church attendance will likely be expected and if not required by law there will certainly be a great deal of social pressure to attend. That said, how seriously the priests take their sermons may vary. Some are bound to be truly pious, but once priesthood is bound to politic authority there will be no shortage of those who join for the sake of social advancement.

The Church will claim universal authority and try to appear as if the clergy is completely unified, but there will always be areas where control is weaker than others. There might even be countries which do not fall under the Church’s direct influence and survive this way through political arrangements or simple geographic isolation. Island nations like Britain, Iceland, and Japan come to mind as ideal candidates for independent entities.

Competing factions within the Church, each with their own interpretation of scripture, are also likely. Human and civil rights, ethnic and national concerns, and alternate modes of worship might all come into play as this Church-led world advances in the modern age. Isolated Bishops may begin to run their diocese as miniature kingdoms if left alone or may start to prioritize local concerns over the greater needs and goals of the Church.

How will the Church handle dissent? The larger it grows the more likely a schism will occur. New believers and new discoveries will bring no shortage of new ideas to the Church. If the Church is willing to allow changes or accommodate different sects under the Catholic umbrella then I think the status quo could be preserved for some time in this scenario.

Feel free to reach out on twitter to talk about how you would design this world or what stories it might be filled with.