Thursday, December 29, 2005

Pope Joan

There was an interesting feature on ABC's Primetime Live tonight--Diane Sawyer, obviously looking to cash in on the religious conspiracy coattails of The DaVinci Code, examined the legend of Pope Joan, a woman who supposedly disguised herself as a man to earn an education and ended up being elected pope in the ninth century.
Medieval manuscripts tell a similar tale: Two-and-a-half years into her reign, Pope Joan was in the midst of a papal procession, a three-mile trip to the Church of the Lateran in Rome, when suddenly at a crossroads, she felt sharp pains in her stomach.

She was having contractions, the stories say. The unthinkable happened — the pope was having a baby.

"And then, shock and horror," says Malone. "And then the story gets very confused, because some of the records say she was killed and her child was killed right on the spot. Other records say she was sent to a convent and that her son grew up and later became bishop of Ostia."

Stories vary — some say the crowd stoned her to death, others say she was dragged from the tail of a horse — but in most accounts, Pope Joan perished that day.

While interesting, the story wasn't very even-handed. It was obvious that Sawyer was fascinated by the prospect of a female pope, and played up that "what if?" angle. And the feature itself didn't do much to shed any light on the matter--pretty much every piece of evidence cited can be found in Peter Stanford's somewhat self-congratulatory book The Legend of Pope Joan. At a glance, the evidence is indeed convincing--especially in light of the fact that in the early years of Christianity, women held far more powerful roles in the church, evidence of which was systematically suppressed over the ensuing centuries. It doesn't hurt the case of the pro-Joan advocates that those on the opposite side of the issue (in the Dateline piece and also in some of the literature I've read) simply say "She didn't exist," and leave it at that.

The most powerful arguement against her existance is that the first mention of her doesn't turn up until the 13th century. At the same time, however, evidence clearly shows her existance and death was an accepted fact by pope and peasant alike in the middle ages. Simply dismissing her as a myth misses the point--even myth, when believed, becomes real. How else to explain the marble toilet seat throne used to verify a pope's manhood? I'd very much like to see a work that examines the legend of Pope Joan itself--the legend, not the person--because all legends have a context and an origin. There is a reason why Pope Joan was accepted as real by the Catholic church for more than 500 years, and those reasons deserve exploration. Was it a simple morality tale designed to keep women "in their place"? Or was it a reaction against the "beguines and mystics" who threatened church hierarchy? Or was it even a mangled distortion of the pope-making powers of Theodora, a powerful 10th century Roman noblewoman?

In any event, there's more interest in the legend now than at any time in history. There's even a Pope Joan movie lensing in Germany. What I find amusing is the rabid venom being spewed by right-wing Catholics on blogs hither and yon insisting that the story is anti-Catholic propoganda. Take a look at this snippet from WorldNetDaily:
But Catholic writer Philip Jenkins, in his book "The New Anti-Catholicism, calls the "Pope Joan legend" a "venerable staple of the anti-Catholic mythology."

"Though it has not the slightest foundation," he writes, "from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth, the tale was beloved by Protestants, since it testified to Catholic stupidity. ..." Today, he says, "Pope Joan enjoys a lively presence on the Web, where feminist anti-Catholics celebrate her existence much as did seventeenth-century Calvinists."

The posting on the Newsbusters site said: "That a major network like ABC would lend credibility to such a vicious anti-Catholic smear is deplorable."

Maybe I'm theologically dense, but I can't for the life of me see how this could be a Protestant conspiracy. Even if Joan if a complete and total fabrication, the legend appears in official church records 300 years before Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the church door. These folks shouldn't be so paranoid and defensive.

Whether true or false, Pope Joan is a great story. Just strange enough to be true in an era that was too bizarre to be believed. It's probably just a myth, akin to the Infancy Gospels, but it's a myth one wishes were true.

Now Playing: Chant Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos

No comments:

Post a Comment