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Caesaropapism is the idea of combining the power of secular government with, or making it superior to, the spiritual authority of the Christian Church; especially concerning the connection of the Christian Church with government. In its extreme form, it is a political theory in which the head of state, notably the Emperor ("Caesar," by extension an "equal" King), is also the supreme head of the church ("papa," pope or analogous religious leader). In this form, it inverts theocracy in which institutions of the Church are in control of the State.

Extended use

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The term is just as applicable to similar reports between secular and religious power when the titles of one or both office holders are different, and even at a smaller scale than the universal church, and is even used when the control is less than total. Thus the French kings are a good example of a non-imperial Catholic monarchy that was rather successful in getting a great say in the French church (such as commendatory prelatures) and getting access to significant income from church property; during and around the "Babylonian Exile" of the papacy in Avignon they even had a heavy hand in the papacy as such; and aspects of Gallicanism reflect the desire to give even the liturgy (even when Latin was the only language for church rites) a distinctive French flavor.

After the introduction of Protestantism, the immense fermentation caused by the introduction of socially subversive principles into the life of a people would exhaust its revolutionary beginnings, and result in a new form of social and religious order—the residue of the great Protestant upheaval in Europe was territorial or State Religion, based on the religious supremacy of the temporal ruler, in contradistinction to the old order in which the temporal ruler took an oath of obedience to the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther's first reformatory attempts were radically democratic. He sought to benefit the people at large by curtailing the powers of both Church and State. The German princes, to him, were "usually the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth." In 1523 he wrote: "The people will not, cannot, shall not endure your tyranny and oppression any longer. The world is not now what it was formerly, when you could chase and drive the people like game." This manifesto, addressed to the poorer masses, was taken up by Franz von Sickingen, a Knight of the Empire, who entered the field in execution of its threats. His object was twofold: to strengthen the political power of the knights—the inferior nobility—against the princes, and to open the road to the new Gospel by overthrowing the bishops, but his enterprise had the opposite result: the knights were beaten, lost what influence they had possessed, and the princes were proportionately strengthened. The rising of the peasants likewise turned to the advantage of the princes: the fearful slaughter of Frankenhausen (1525) left the princes without an enemy and the new Gospel without its natural defenders. The victorious princes used their augmented power entirely for their own advantage in opposition to the authority of the emperor and the freedom of the nation.

Caesaropapism in the Eastern Church

Caesaropapism's chief meaning is the authority the Byzantine emperors had over the Eastern Christian Church from the 500s through the tenth century.[1][2] The Byzantine emperor would typically protect the Eastern Church and manage its administration by presiding over councils and appointing patriarchs and setting territorial boundaries for their jurisdiction.[3] The emperor, whose control was so strong that "caesaropapism" became interchangeable with "Byzantinism," was called pontifex maximus, meaning chief priest, and the Patriarch of Constantinople could not hold office if he did not have the emperor's approval.[4] Eastern men like St. John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople[3] and Pope St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, strongly opposed imperial control over the Church, as did Western theologians such as St. Hilary and Hosius, Bishop of Cardova.[5] Such emperors as Basiliscus, Zeno, Justinian, Heraclius, and Constans II published several strictly ecclesiastical edicts either on their own without the mediation of church councils, or they exercised their own political influence on the councils to issue the edicts.[6] Caesaropapism was most notorious in Russia when Ivan the Terrible assumed the title Czar in 1547 and subordinated the Russian Orthodox Church to the state.[7] This level of caesaropapism far exceeded that of the Byzantine Empire.[8] Caesaropapism existed in the Orthodox Church in Turkey until 1923 and in Cyprus until 1977, when Archbishop Makrios III reposed.[9] However, in no way is caesaropapism a part of Orthodox dogma. The historical reality, as opposed to doctrinal endorsement or dogmatic definition, of caesaropapism stems from, according to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, the confusion of the Byzantine Empire with the Kingdom of God and the zeal of the Byzantines "to establish here on earth a living icon of God's government in heaven."[10]


Published works

  • Deno J. Geanakoplos. Church and State in the Byzantine Empire: A Reconsideration of the Problem of Caesaropapism. Church History. Vol. 34, No. 4 (Dec., 1965), pp.381-403.


  1. Cross, F.L. & Livingstone, E.A. (1983), Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (2nd ed.), Oxford: Oxford Unversity Press, pp. 218.
  2. Douglas, J.D. (1978), The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (revised ed.), Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, pp. 173.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Encyclopedia Britannica, vol. II, 1985, pp. 718-719.
  4. Latourette, Kenneth Scott (1975), A History of Christianity to A.D. 1500, vol. I (revised ed.), San Francisco: Harper & Row, pp. 283; 312.
  5. Dawson, Christopher (1956), The Making of Europe (2nd ed.), New York: Meridian Books, pp. 109-110.
  6. Schaff, Philip (1974), History of the Christian Church: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity: A.D. 311-600, vol. II (5th ed.), Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, pp. 135.
  7. Bainton, Roland H. (1966), Christendom: A Short History of Christianity, vol. I, New York: Harper & Row, pp. 119.
  8. Billington, James H. (1966), The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture, New York: Random House, pp. 67.
  9. Ware, Timothy (1980), The Orthodox Church (revised ed.), New York: Penguin Books, pp. 98.
  10. Ware, Timothy (1980), The Orthodox Church (revised ed.), New York: Penguin Books, pp. 50.