Shadowless theocracies: A study of religion and inheritance norms

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Theocratic systems often impose strict rules on those living under them. But long-run economic effects can also be felt centuries later. This column presents evidence from the Papal States, using this case study to explore the role of theocracy in shaping future religiosity as well as political preferences. The study suggests that where other pre-existing behaviours and attitudes are present, such as the need for collectivism in an agrarian society, the power of the Church is diminished, and its long-term effect on religiosity and political preferences vanishes.

Religion, power and economics are intertwined. Theocracies – autocratic regimes governed by religious elites with laws based on doctrine – affect economic growth patterns centuries after their dissolution. They do so by causing changes in mutual trust and social capital (Drelichman et al., 2021). But do they also affect influence religiosity and pro-religious political preferences in the long term?

This column presents a study on the Papal States – a Catholic theocracy in Italy. The results of the paper show that while the Papal States imposed oppressive institutions that had the potential to erode social capital and increase the saliency of religiosity, this happened in an area where pre-existing cultural norms emphasised collectivism instead of religiosity. This made the theocratic institutions ineffective in shaping politics in the long term. Pre-existing behaviours and attitudes were robust to the influences of the Church.

Even today, theocracies often limit individual rights. Frequently, they are characterised by autocratic institutions which employ oppressive means of rule (especially towards women). Yet in several democratic countries, the demand for religious involvement in political decision-making is on the rise. As of 2017, one out of every five Americans was in favour of not separating Church and state (Whitehead and Perry, 2020). But how long do theocratic institutions affect religiosity and the support of pro-religious parties?

Answering this question poses methodological challenges. Simply comparing areas that were subject to theocratic rule with areas that were not is insufficient. Such a comparison fails to consider that some territories ended up being theocratic because of pre-existing characteristics, including religiosity, that could also drive contemporary religiosity and pro-religious votes. Borders are drawn around the characteristics of territories. A simple comparison would fail to account for this.

To disentangle the true effect of theocracy from pre-existing characteristics, a recent research paper exploits the unique empirical setting of the Papal States in Italy. The northern border of the Papal States was a large river (the River Po). For centuries, this separated the group of theocratic territories from the progressive and secular institutions of the Republic of Venice. At the same time, people living on the two sides of the river had previously developed inheritance norms that drove different levels of religiosity (Todd, 1990). This meant that there were groups of people living close to one another, but following very different norms and valuing religion differently.

Looking at the geography of theocratic institutions and pro-religious cultural norms makes it possible to disentangle their effects. As displayed in Figure I, theocratic territories were located south-east of the river, and areas south-east and north of the river had secular institutions. Inheritance norms were partible (and implied lower religiosity) south of the river, meaning that inheritance was equally split among siblings, whereas they were indivisible (pro-religious) north of the river, where only one son inherited the entire family’s wealth. So, while comparing south-east to north territories identifies the compound effect of theocracy and inheritance norms, the comparison between south-west and north only identifies the change in inheritance norms. Taking the difference of these two comparisons isolates the effect of theocracy.

Figure 1: Empirical strategy to identify the effect of theocracy: an intuition


What does this research tell us?

The theocratic institutions of the Papal States did not affect pro-religious political preferences and religiosity in the 20th century. This is found by measuring the percentage of votes given to the Democrazia Cristiana (the Catholic mass party) at every election between 1948 and 1992; the percentage of votes against divorce and abortion in two referenda held in 1972 and 1981; and, finally, the percentage of students attending a voluntary Catholic religion class in every school of the territory.

Focusing on the latter, the syllabus of these classes (as well as the choice of teachers) is administered by the Holy See – what is now left of the Papal States. Children are automatically enrolled, but parents can opt out. Doing so sends a signal of lower religiosity and acceptance of Church institutions to the rest of the community and can entail reputational costs (especially in highly religious areas). This makes it a useful measure for assessing different regions and their prevailing attitudes towards the Church.

At the same time, the two comparisons show large differences in both pro-religious votes and religiosity between the south and north side of the river. If they aren’t caused by theocracy, what is the underlying reason? The paper suggests that north-south differences might be triggered by different inheritance norms, which developed in the Early Middle Ages, and thus pre-dated the Papal States – in line with qualitative theory proposed by Todd (1990). North of the River Po, under indivisible inheritance, only one son inherited the family’s wealth and the authoritative role of household head, gaining control over siblings who did not leave the household. South of the river – including the Papal States – all sons would inherit an equal share of inheritance, and eventually form their own smaller households.

The link from inheritance norms to political preferences is mediated by collectivism. In the area’s agrarian society, large groups were needed to work the land. Smaller and poorer households under partible inheritance often collaborated to reach that critical mass. The stronger reliance on mutual help paved the way for socialist political preferences. So, collectivism was driven by a cultural force that pre-dated the theocratic Papal States.

On the other hand, under indivisible inheritance, wealth was not diluted. Those who needed help were the individuals who decided to leave their household, not the overall household. When they left, a common choice was to join the clergy. Beyond this, the stronger authority of the household’s head under indivisible inheritance over relatives’ fertility choices (motivated again by the logic of farm work) was more in line with pro-religious views. It disincentivised sexual freedom and illegitimate births – norms that aligned with conservative Catholicism.

Even though the Papal States imposed oppressive institutions, it appears possible that collectivist pre-existing norms prevented them from depleting social capital, leaving the long-term effects on inheritance norms unaffected.


What else do we need to know?

This study contributes to several strands of previous research. It is the first causal analysis on the long-term effects of theocracies, and it provides qualitative empirical test for several of Todd’s theories on Medieval inheritance norms and political preferences. In terms of method, the econometrics that allow identifying the effect of theocracy extend existing techniques.

The paper also sheds light on a particular interaction between culture (inheritance norms) and institutions (theocracy). Understanding the dynamics of this interaction has been an open debate for a long time (e.g., Alesina and Giuliano, 2015).

This work also leaves an open question: in settings where cultural norms have not evolved to foster collectivism, theocracies might still have worrying political ramifications in the long run. Such undemocratic scenarios deserve the attention of future research. Pro-religious positions might restrict individual freedoms by rooting policy-making in religious doctrine. But these latest findings also suggest a strategy to contrast the support of the most oppressive aspects of theocracy: policies that foster cooperation and collectivism.


Author: Alice Dominic


  • Alesina and P. Giuliano. Culture and institutions. Journal of Economic Literature, 53(4):898–944, 2015.
  • M. Drelichman, J. Vidal-Robert, and H. J. Voth. The long-run effects of religious persecution: Evidence from the Spanish Inquisition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118, 2021.
  • E. Todd. L’invention de l’Europe. Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1990.
  • A. L. Whitehead and S. L. Perry. Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. Oxford University Press, 2020.