It’s an old story and probably just an old fantasy. Joan — other versions call her Johanna — was a bright, vocal, and well educated lady. She so impressed the Curia Romana that when the old male pope died, she was enthusiastically elected pope. A needed reformer we would say today. Two years into Pope Joan’s papacy she became pregnant. The papal butler said her lover was a famous cardinal.
The earliest historical mention of this female pope appears in the Chronica Universalis Mettensis, written in the early 13th century by a Domincan priest, Jean de Mailly. He describes the events this way:
“Concerning a certain pope or rather a female pope, who is not set down in the list of popes or Bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man and became, by her character and talents, a curial secretary, then a cardinal and finally pope…..One day, while mounting a horse, she gave birth to a child.”
Another thirteenth century Dominican, Martin of Opava, recorded the story as well. He writes:
“It is claimed that this Pope John was actually a woman, who as a girl had been led to Athens dressed in the clothes of a man by a certain lover of hers. There she became proficient in a diversity of branches of knowledge, until she had no equal, and, afterward in Rome, she taught the liberal arts and had great masters among her students. A high opinion of her life and learning arose in the city; and she was chosen for pope. While pope, however, she became pregnant by her companion. Through ignorance of the exact time when the birth was expected, she was delivered of a child while in procession from St. Peter’s to the Lateran.”
Today of course a pregnant pope would have the modern comforts and convenience of a popemobile. No awkward or uncomfortable child-birth, while greeting pilgrims in St Peter’s Square.
Well of course, I am a responsible old historical theologian. I must therefore declare that most modern scholars dismiss Pope Joan as a medieval legend.
If we COULD elect a woman pope, my vote would go to an American Benedictine: Sister Joan Chittister. I loved her March 6th column in NCR where she points out that the Vatican could learn a thing or two about renewal from women religious. Joan sees it clearly and says it with her own eloquence.
“Women religious may have something to teach the church about the process of conversion and development at this very important moment.
“Religious life, too, had been encased in another world. Women religious lived separately from the world around them, they dressed in clothes that had been designed centuries before, they gave up a sense of personal or individual identity. As a result, they got further away from the people they served by the day, further away from their needs, further away from their feelings….Renewal, they discovered, was a matter of demystification, integration and relevance.
“Religious life had its own kind of monarchies to be deconstructed before anything creative could possibly happen or the gifts of its members be released for the sake of the world at large.
“The first step was to take the Second Vatican Council’s direction about collegiality and subsidiarity, the concepts of shared responsibility and personal decision-making. That meant that the kind of absolute authority that had built up around religious superiors had to be relinquished. Major decisions began to be shared with the community at large. Personal decisions began to be entrusted to the sisters themselves, all adult and educated women who had been deprived of the minutest decision-making: for example, the hour at which they would go to bed; the right to make a doctor’s appointment; the structure of their lives between prayer times. Major superiors began to be expected — and allowed — to be Jesus-figures in the community, spiritual leaders not lawgivers, not monitors, not queen bees.
“In the second place, religious had to learn to integrate themselves into the society they were attempting to serve. That did not necessarily mean eliminating a kind of symbolic dress, but it did mean updating it in a way designed to simplify rather than to separate. Most women religious chose, like Jesus, to set out to be the sign rather than do it the easy way and wear the sign.”