Pope John — Or Joan? By Clara Johnson (May 1998)

When I first joined the National Organization for Women, in the early seventies, I also joined that chapter’s book club. We read a nonfiction book about a pope named Joan. I was reminded of this by a recent novel, Pope Joan, by Donna Woolford Cross. The jacket blurb says that Cross’ story is “based on the life of Pope Joan . . . who, disguised as a man, ruled Christianity as the first and only woman ever to sit on the Throne of St. Peter.”

In her novel, Cross writes that Joan was born in what would now be southern Germany. She was a bright child who began dressing as a boy so that she could study in a monastery. At some point in her adolescence, she became a companion of an influential male, with whom she traveled to Greece to continue her studies. From there, she went to Rome, where she began acquiring important appointments in the church hierarchy. She allied herself with Pope Sergius II and became a popular figure through her work with the deprived people of the city.

On the death of the next pope, Leo IV, the clerics and citizens of Rome elected her pope. She served for two or three years until, in a papal procession, she fell in the street and gave birth to a male child. Her deception was uncovered. The clerical authorities tied her feet to the hooves of her horse and she was dragged to her death.

Joan had chosen John for her papal name. She is not recognized by the Catholic Church, is not officially listed among the popes. Or, is she there, disguised as one of the Johns?

There is some confusion about the naming of the John popes. I first became aware of this confusion in the numbers of the Johns when Pope Pius XII died in 1958. In my ignorance, I had assumed that the next pope would be Pius XIII. After all, Pius XII had succeeded Pius XI.

But, Angelo Guiseppi Roncalli chose the name of John. For a brief period, the media speculated about his number: Would he be John XXII or John XXIII? They made baffling references to antipopes and to something called the Babylon Captivity. And to me, antipope sounded like a protest movement. But what could Babylon, a preChristian city on the banks of the Euphrates River, have to do with popes named John?

When Roncalli took the number XXIII, the media stopped talking about antipopes and Babylon. There were no further explanations. If I wanted to know more, I’d have to find out for myself.

The religious section of the public library yielded a dusty volume from its stacks. It was in such bad condition that I had to use it there. I learned that the Babylon Captivity was a seventy-year period during the early fourteenth century, when the popes lived in Avignon, an area of France, because the Catholic prelates, who wanted to be popes, would kill them if the French emperors weren’t protecting them. This “captivity” so angered Romans that they began electing their own popes. At any given time, there might be two popes, a French one and a Roman one. Later the city/state of Pisa got into the act and elected its pope. Now there could be three popes, all calling each other anti- popes.

What does this have to do with popes named John? Priest/writer Malachi Martin, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Catholic Church, lists the John popes’ numbers and their years of service. He does not list a John pope for 855, the year sometimes suggested as the election date for Pope Joan. Instead, he lists Pope Leo, IV, 844-847, then goes directly to Benedict III, 855-858. He lists the John popes elected in 872, 1024, 1276, and 1316. Then no more Johns until Roncalli’s election in 1958. And in his list, he skips from John XIX to John XXI. No John XX.

The church has an explanation for the missing John XX. This explanation is supported by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe, in their book, The Female Pope, where they present what they say is “well-documented evidence,” showing that other well-authenticated popes reigned “throughout the ninth and eleventh centuries,” and there was no gap into which a Pope Joan/John might have been fitted. The Pardoes “clarify” the John numbering, stating that there is no problem about the early Johns. They discuss documents and letters which affirm that all these Johns are verified as males.

The Pardoes say that the only difficulty with the John numbers comes because the first John XXIII was one of the Pisa popes, therefore he was an antipope. So, they say, it was proper for his number to be re-used, as Roncalli did in 1958. They state that all the antipope names, except Alexander, were given the same treatment–their numbers were re-used. However Martin, in his listing, goes from Boniface VII (896), to Boniface VIII (1294). The antipope Boniface’s number, VII, was not reused.

The Pardoes acknowledge that the omission of John XX from the official listing is an “intriguing and superficially more puzzling problem,” but say it has nothing to do with a removal of Pope Joan/John. It was caused, they say, by the renumbering of the Johns, which took place during the reign of John XXI, because “a belief grew up that an additional pope had ruled briefly, in the tenth century [between John XIV and John XV], within the one-year gap when the See of Rome was actually in the hands of antipope Boniface VII.” This non-existent pope John was given the number, XV. Each subsequent John had his number increased by one, the original John XX becoming John XXI, and the then-present John XXI becoming John XXII. When this error was discovered, all these John popes had their original numbers restored to them, except for John XXI, the latest John, who, during his lifetime, had been known as John XXI. That left the John XX position unfilled.

The Catholic Church’s position is that there never was a female pope, a Pope Joan. A further argument they use to support their position is that the contemporary writers of the ninth, tenth, and eleventh century do not include Joan in their histories and other documents; that Joan is not mentioned until the time of the Protestant Reformation. Only then did churchmen/writers begin to insert Joan’s name, often clumsily, they say, into existing accounts.

In an author’s note, novelist Cross tells us that the ninth century was “the darkest of the dark ages” with “widespread illiteracy marked by the extraordinary dearth of record keeping” and “there is no continuous record of ninth-century popes.” The questionable exception is an ancient copy of Liber Ponticalis, which does mention Joan, but some claim that this mention appears to be “a later interpolation clumsily pierced into the main body of the text.” Cross says that does not necessarily mean it is untrue; it could mean that an unknown copyist felt morally obligated to correct the official record.

Cross says she is not surprised that the contemporary church records fail to mention Joan since those clerics were so “appalled” by the deception that they would have been motivated to conceal her existence by writing her out of history. She also mentions the church’s propensity for altering church documents: The “great theologian Alcium, in one of his letters, admits destroying a report of Pope Leo II’s adultery and simony.”

Cross says that “for hundreds of years–up to the middle of the seventeenth century,” Joan’s papacy was accepted as true, and, for three hundred years, the official church guidebook used by pilgrims included the story of Joan’s papacy. Furthermore, she offers historical evidence of Joan’s existence in “the well documented 1413 heresy trial of Jan Hus. In his defense, Hus cited examples of popes who had sinned. His churchmen judges denied his accusations–all but one of them. When Hus testified that Joan, a female, had been elected pope, the charge went unchallenged.

Cross presents “circumstantial” evidence which would be difficult to explain if there were never a female pope: There is a shunned street, Via Sacra, where Joan supposedly gave birth, and which, soon after, papal processions deliberately began to turn aside from . . . in abhorrence of that event.” The church claims that this was because the street was too narrow for processions, until it was widened in the sixteenth century.

However, in 1486, before the street was widened, John Burchardt, Bishop of Horta, described in his journal a papal procession which did go down that street.

In their book, the Pardoes “agree” that Bishop Burchardt “broke with tradition by passing along the shunned street” and mentioned that there was “some kind of a statue on the street.” They also acknowledge that when Martin Luther visited Rome in 1510, he remarked on the street statue, saying he was surprised about “so embarrassing an object in a public place.” The woman in the statue, Luther said, was wearing a papal cloak and holding a child and a scepter. However, the Pardoes report that contemporary writings record that the figure could have been “little more than fifty years old.” They write that G. Tomasetti’s theory (in La Statua Delia Papessa Giovanna) confirms that a statue survives and is a “charming portrayal of a serene and dignified young woman suckling a child.” “She is modestly robed and wears a diadem on her head. “Luther’s observed scepter (and papal robe) are not mentioned.

Both Donna Cross and the Pardoes mention the Pierced Chair. Cross asks, if there was never a female pope, “why, for over six hundred years, was a chair exam part of the medieval papal consecration ceremony” before the nominee could be given the keys to the kingdom? The Pardoes say that the chair’s origins cannot be traced back to the supposed Pope Joan’s time, although they acknowledge that Bartolomeo Plalinie, a prefect of the Vatican Library in 1471, repeats a version of events, which goes, “when the popes are first enthroned on the seat of Peter . . . their genitals are felt by the most junior deacon present.” Afterwards, the examiner, according to Cross, “solemnly informed the gathered people ‘Mas nobis nominus est’–‘Our nominee is a man.’ ” The pierced chair survives. The church insists that the chair was used in consecrations because of its handsome appearance, and that the hole in the seat was irrelevant.

The Pardoes say that acceptance of the female pope’s reality is based on no firm foundation. Though they acknowledge that some of the achievements of the feminist movement have been a “long overdue re-evaluation of the role of women in history,” they regret that, “among a small number of women of historical standing, fem-inists have taken to heart Pope Joan.”

Pope Joan. A legend, the Pardoes say. Vallet Deviriville said, “Whenever you see a legend, you can be sure, if you go to the very bottom of things you will find history.”

From my years of work in the women’s movement, I have met feminists who cling to at least the fringes of organized religion. They think, or suspect, that church history was written by misogynistic males who have deleted the contributions made by women. They search for evidences of these deletions, and believe that they can find them, and that the dogma which supports their faith can be interpreted as less woman-hating than it appears to be. They know the scriptures are sexist. They know of the church’s history of witch-burning, and about such church-sanctioned female-torture instruments as the Iron Virgin and the Spider (Thumbscrew and Rack, George MacDonald). But they hope that, by remaining in the church, they can influence its direction, reform its dogma, and redress its history. They believe that the church was established by Jesus Christ and that it is guided by the Holy Spirit, a visible sign of communion with God. They have faith and they believe they can change the church.

Do they know that, as late as January 1997, Pope John Paul II excommunicated a Sri Lankan theologian-priest who had challenged the church’s position on women priests? A church spokesman said, that while such an opinion is not heresy, it is a “clearly erroneous position” that is incompatible with the faith.

Other feminists are so angry about organized religion’s misogyny that they reject it, but they do not dismiss the spirituality which they associate with mysticism and the supernatural. Like earlier rebellious women, they pursue alternative methods of worship. Some organize covens and become witches; others pay homage to earth goddesses, pagan goddesses, and moon goddesses; some rely on fortune tellers, the stars, or crystals. Some know about Pope Joan and identify with her card of the Tarot deck. They interpret the Joan card as a symbol of women’s power and knowledge.

Then, there are feminists like me. We don’t believe in supernatural beings, and the miracles and faith which they engender. We know about Pope Joan. If she existed, we applaud her rebellious spirit and admire the determination with which she pursued an education and a position in life, which her female body denied her. We marvel at her courage in risking almost certain death at the hands of the male prelates, who had only contempt and hatred for women. And, which so many of them still have: Rev. Andrew Greeley says he learned in the seminary that “women’s bodies are swamps designed to trap men” (Chicago Tribune, 1/19/97).

In their book, His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time, authors Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi confirm that this churchly judgment prevails. Pope John Paul II recently made this reply to the under secretary general of the United Nations, a Pakistani woman who had protested male violence against women: “Don’t you think that the irresponsible behavior of men is caused by women?”

In a second incident reported by Bernstein and Politi, Pope John Paul II, during a visit to Chile, when Augusto Pinochet was in power, was introduced to a 19-year-old woman, whose face had been disfigured when Pinochet’s soldiers doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. He dismissed the woman with this callous remark, “I know all about it. I know all about it.”

After reading the history of the church and the remarks of present clericals, I want to paraphrase a quotation by Voltaire, 1694-1778:

“Every sensible [woman] . . . must hold the Christian sect in horror. ‘But what shall we substitute in its place?’ [some feminists say.] What? A ferocious animal has sucked the blood of [our sisters]. I tell you to rid yourselves of this beast, and you ask me what you shall put in its place?”

I believe that women should repudiate this “millennial story which stretches back to the superstitious childhood of our species and which depends on the exploitation of the simple and the humble by the cunning and the single-minded” [The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Christopher Hitchens].

Foundation member Clara Johnson is a retired chemist, a feminist, an atheist, a writer, and a part-time owner of the Prairie Moon Feminist Bookstore of Arlington Heights, IL. While living in Peoria, she helped organize the Robert G. Ingersoll Sesquicentennial Celebration (1983). Her son Gordon McGrew is also a feminist and atheist.

Freedom From Religion Foundation