The Catholic priesthood may be one of the world’s most long-standing boys’ clubs. They have always maintained a strict policy of “No girls allowed.” (Except for nuns who are allowed to wash floors for priests.) Absolutely no girls, eh? Hmmm. I don’t know about you but I’m not inclined to believe everything people tell me. Especially when the information is coming from men who, in the 21st century, still like to wear dresses and pointy hats.
Celibacy among the Catholic clergy has always been something of an impossible dream. Everybody agreed it was a really good idea but in the wild and woolly days of the early church, very few priests were actually willing to walk the talk. After all, it was hard to make a case for apostolic precedent when most of the original disciples were, in fact, married men. The Petrine Church made a valiant effort at reinforcing its basic misogyny by issuing a statement in the 4th century that all clergymen would henceforth be celibate. So there!
Unfortunately for the church fathers, the average Joe priest treated that rule much like the Pirate Code Of The Brethren - seeing it as more of a guideline than an actual rule. As a guideline, universal clerical celibacy didn’t really guide anybody’s behavior. By the early middle ages, clerics found lots of interesting ways of getting around the requirement. Some of the more creative workarounds involved incest, sodomy and bestiality -- behavior which makes the current pedophilia scandal look like good clean fun. Higher ranking members of the clergy favored concubines, since technically they weren’t considered “wives,” while many of the popes simply said, “Hey, I’m in charge and I can do whatever I want!” There were a surprising number of sexually active popes between the 10th and 16th centuries, some of whom treated the papacy as a title that could be passed from father to son.
I only mention these facts to illustrate that you have to take the official party line with a grain of salt. Take for example the emphatic and oft-repeated statement that there has never, ever, ever been a female pope. I beg to differ. There have been at least two women who held the title not to mention the scores of other women (shadow pontiffs) who pulled the strings of puppet popes. One case occurred as recently as the early 20th century but this essay isn’t about her.
This essay is about Joan, the first known woman to wear the pointy hat. She was born in Germany of English parents sometime in the 9th century. Her early life was fairly ordinary but when she was a teenager her boyfriend announced he was going away to college in Greece. Knowing that long distance relationships rarely work out, Joan cross-dressed and went with him. It didn’t take long to find out which one of them was going to make the Dean’s List. Joan was the better scholar and she was as ambitious as she was brainy.
Her academic fame traveled far and wide until somebody tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Hey, have you ever considered a career in the church?” She thought it was a good idea and quickly rose through the ranks. Her scriptural knowledge so impressed the boys in red (aka college of cardinals) that they voted her Pope John VIII in 853. Everything went swimmingly for about two years until Joan found herself in a family way. This might have gone unnoticed given the baggy robes everybody wore back then but she had the bad luck to go into labor while riding in a procession down the Via Sacra in Rome. Fortunately, the baby was stillborn. I say fortunately (for the baby) because of what came next. The faithful didn’t take Joan’s transvestism well. According to Dominican friar Jean De Mailly, her feet were tied to the tail of a horse and she was dragged for over a mile while angry mobs pelted her with rocks. Needless to say, she didn’t survive the experience.
Although Joan’s time as pontiff was an embarrassment to the church, the Holy See did nothing to contradict the official record until the 17th century. At that point, the threat of Protestantism loomed large in the nightmares of the Vatican. People were converting willy nilly and it was time to restore the Catholic Church’s credibility - starting with erasing the story of Joan. Hundreds of documents relating to her two year reign were destroyed, dates of papal officeholders were shifted around to cover the gap, and her statue in the Cathedral of Sienna magically transformed itself into a bust of Pope Zacharias. If you ask a Catholic priest today about Joan, he’ll smile condescendingly and tell you she was a fabrication of the Protestant propaganda machine.
Conspiracy theorists, take note. There is a virtual gold mine of opportunity here in the many curious bits of trivia that contradict the church’s claim that she never existed. Time doesn’t permit me to mention them all. I’ll leave that to the curious and their search engines but I will tell you about the most interesting oddity. Shortly after Joan’s demise and for several centuries thereafter, the papal induction ceremony entailed one very unusual ritual. The person elected pope was required to sit in a chair with a hole in its bottom. The chair itself was called the “sedia stercoraria” (literally, the dung chair). Everybody waited patiently while a cleric poked and prodded the pontiff’s posterior until he found what he was looking for. (You think I’m making this up? Please, my imagination isn’t that good!)
Once the inspector had ascertained the existence of the requisite collection of objects, he would announce proudly to the onlookers, “mas nobis nominus est” (our nominee is a man)! The crowd went wild with jubilation because everybody knows that there is a direct correlation between the possession of male genitalia and the ability to provide wise spiritual guidance to the masses. (You didn’t know that? Good thing I cleared that up for you.)
The dung chair is now housed in one of the Vatican Museums with a tag that reads, “Not a chamber pot. For official Vatican business only!” (OK I made that bit up but the rest is real.)
NOTE: If you’d like more information on this fascinating topic, check out Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross or the movie of the same name (2009) directed by Sönke Wortmann.