Just a couple of weeks ago an intrigued colleague exclaimed to me how surprised he was to hear the allegation that the Catholic Church once had a female pope (he had read about it in a “trivia book”). The trivia book, however, must have been very convincing because he seemed quite prepared to believe the charge on its authority…
Yes—sadly—this archaic story from the Middle Ages is still being purported by some as a matter of true history; and moreover, some are prepared (or un-prepared) to believe it.
As the story generally goes, an intelligent, scholarly and well-educated woman—disguised as a man—entered a religious order in Rome in the 9th century. In disguise, the she rose among the Church hierarchy and was eventually made the Bishop of Rome.
This is the legend of “Pope Joan.”
But the story is highly problematic for several reasons. One obvious reason to reject the account of a valid female pope is that the Sacrament of Holy Orders is reserved to men only due to its nature, just as the nature of maternity necessitates that only the female gender is capable of true motherhood.
St. John Paul the Great put this issue to rest in his apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, declaring:
“I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”
Essentially and in short, because the priest—particularly in the act of providing the Sacraments—acts “in the person of Christ” who was male, the priests of the Church must be male. They are not a mere symbol of Jesus but much more. They are an image of Christ and special instruments of His grace. Male-only ordination is not a man-made invention but a doctrine of Christ (evident in the Gospels by His calling of 12 male apostles). Christ was male, and therefore by necessity, the priests who act in His place must be male. This is the ruling of Christ and two thousand year tradition of the Christian Church.
So even if there was an alleged “Pope Joan” her so-called ordination would have been invalid, meaning she was not a true pope anyway; and the doctrinal integrity of the Church would remain intact. This theological impossibility is the first fatal flaw of the legend of Pope Joan.
The second fatal flaw of this legend is its historical unreliability.
First, no historical record of a female Pope arises until about 400 years after the supposed reign of Joan (somewhere in the 9th-10th centuries). There is silence until the mid-13th century, and it was not until the late 14th century that the legend gained wide notoriety.
Second, many versions of the story allege that she eventually conceived and bore a son who became the bishop of Ostia, near Rome. After Joan’s death, as the story goes, her body was buried at Ostia by her son. Both of these details lack any historical verification, however. and there is no good quality evidence of her son or her grave.
Third, all chronological histories of the popes fail to mention her. In his Pope Fiction, author and apologist, Patrick Madrid, references Church historian J. P. Kirsch who wrote:
“Not one contemporaneous historical source among the papal histories knows anything about her, also, no mention is made of her until the middle of the 13th century. Now it is incredible that the appearance of a ‘popess,’ if it was a historical fact, would be noticed by none of the numerous historians from the 10th to the 13th century.” (from The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII)
Finally, such an unprecedented event as the so-called ordination of a female Bishop of Rome would have caught the attention of the masses. The controversial event would have been portrayed in the arts, especially the theatre, and accounts of the female pope would have multiplied dramatically. But there is just no evidence of this happening until 400 years after the fact.
Additionally it is often included in the narrative is that, while being paraded through Rome on her portable throne, a pregnant Pope Joan goes into labour during a procession from St. Peter’s Basilica to St. John Lateran. Right there in the open, Joan delivers the baby and her secret is out. Such an event would surely stimulate a plethora of accounts in and around the time of this dramatic end to Joan’s papal reign. But there is silence about such an occurence.
Some have suggested that the Church suppressed the story due its controversial and embarassing nature; but this is clearly implausible. We must remember that the leadership in the Church of the Middle Ages was not at its best—as much as it pains us to admit—and for this reason we have no good reason to believe that Church would have been so diligent and prudent. Furthermore, the gravity of the story is juts not one that could have been contained easily. Surely we would have had some kind of record of a female pope before the 13th century if it had really happened.
The evidence is simply not there; and this clear lack of theological possibility and good historical evidence leaves the honest inquirer with one reasonable conclusion: the Pope Joan allegation is undoubtedly an unhistorical myth.
For a thorough rebuttal of this allegation and others regarding the papacy, I recommend Pope Fiction by Patrick Madrid.