Her story was considered so subversive that for centuries the Vatican tried to expunge it from the records.And the kicker:
Now a film, which last week reached the top 10 box office list in Italy, has revived the story of Pope Joan - an Englishwoman who, legend has it, disguised herself as a man and became the only female pontiff.
The film will fuel debate over whether Pope Joan really existed or whether, as the Catholic Church maintains, she was a mythical figure used by the early Protestants to discredit and embarrass Rome.
For a church that even today remains staunchly opposed to the idea of female priests, a female pope is anathema.Impossible, actually, just as pizza and soda consecrated by a priest can never be the Eucharist, no matter how hip and trendy he might consider it to be. No amount of Church authority, pomp, or ceremony could ever make a woman (nor, for that matter, non-ordained lay person, etc.) pope, just as no amount of court rulings and gnashing of teeth by Those Who Know Best About the Need For Progress can make the union of two men or two women a marriage. Anyhow, I've not been able to find information about whether or not the movie will play in North America, but I assume it will make its way to DVD at some point.
Inside Catholic has just posted a 2001 book review by Sandra Miesel, "The Myth of Pope Joan," in which she writes:
The January 2008 issue of This Rock has a helpful piece, "The Popess Who Just Won’t Go Away", by Robert P. Lockwood, who states:
Pope Joan is one of the most tenacious myths of the Middle Ages, told and retold by Catholics and anti-Catholics alike since the 13th century. It is said that beautiful young Joan, an Englishwoman born in Mainz, Germany, disguised herself as a man to gain higher education beside her scholarly lover. Her brilliance won her election as pope under the name John in 855 (some say 1100). After reigning less than three years, she bore a child during a papal procession and died immediately, either from childbirth or stoning. Subsequent popes are supposed to have avoided this shameful place and had their maleness verified during their coronation ceremonies, during which an inscription was read as a commemoration of Joan: "Peter, Father of Fathers, Publish the Parturition of the Popess."Though long disproved by historians, this scandalous legend still requires an occasional rebuttal by Catholic apologists. But its relevance has been renewed by the clamor for women’s ordination and contemporary enthusiasm for gender-bending. Among past novels, Donna Woolfolkcross’s Pope Joan has been re-issued as a movie tie-in, and the ex-nun posing as a priest in Louise Edrich’s Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is a Joan-clone among the Ojibwe Indians.
Let’s have a Catholic urban legend with a twist. This one dates from before the Reformation and its sources are therefore entirely Catholic. And in a final twist, the first widely accepted refutation came from a Calvinist scholar.And Patrick Madrid, who addressed this topic in his book Pope Fiction, has recently posted a primer on the persistent myth:
It is the legend of Pope Joan, allegedly the first and only woman elected pope. According to the story, she was pope in the ninth century during the so-called "Dark Ages" until her female identity was revealed. As old as the 13th century, and as recent as a 2005 ABC News "special," Pope Joan will be around as long as she serves an anti-Catholic purpose. She began as an anti-papal fable, persisted as nativist anti-Catholic propaganda, and has blossomed into a 21st-century feminist icon.
In many ways, Pope Joan fits the traditional Catholic urban legend. Take any historical period and she can be molded into a solidly anti-Catholic niche. In the 16th century, Protestant dissenters used her to illustrate the nadir of an ever-corrupt papacy. In the 19th century, she was portrayed as a woman violated and ruined by lascivious clericalism, symbolic of the perversity to which Rome had sunk. In the 21st century, she represents the empowered female who fought the intransigent sexism of the Catholic Church and who therefore had to be destroyed.
A lot of things are said about the alleged "Pope Joan." Depending on who is telling the story, she was a courageous feminist, a clever opportunist, a brilliant scholar who couldn't make it as a woman in a man's world. She is said to have been a wise ruler and an astute theologian, though, oddly, no decree or theological teaching purporting to have come from her has made its way down to our day.As with The Da Vinci Code, this latest bit of historical malarkey may provide some opportunities to discuss Church history and doctrine with folks. It will also be an opportunity to hear and endure more silliness, some of it sincerely naive and some it overtly nasty, from the usual suspects. It wouldn't surprise me if ABC or the History Channel had a special about how Pope Joan was both a Knights Templar, a Scottish Rite Mason*, and a Gnostic who was a direct descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene who also happened to pass along the sacred truths and secrets of ancient witchcraft, the pyramids of Egypt, and Tri-Lateral Commission—and who invented electricity, women's suffrage, and the Internet.
In any case, the fact is, there was no Pope Joan. She exists only as pure legend, but one that makes for a sexy story. And when it comes to sexy stories, you know Hollywood will try its hand at making a blockbuster out of this piece of pope fiction.
* Updated, per the good comment below.