As those charged with choosing the next pope congregate, the identity of the new pope brings up questions about the old. Many have questioned if this next pope would be a first, whether it would be the first pope from the Global South, to, even more unlikely, the first female pope. While it’s infinitely more than likely that the next pope will be a man, especially considering the Catholic Church’s predominantly masculine hierarchy, the history and mythology surrounding the pope tells the story of a woman who once held the title, known as Pope Joan. Of course, though the story is fascinating, it means little in terms of the Catholic Church’s regressive stances on women’s issues.
The myth dates back to the 13th century. Supposedly, Pope Joan was a young woman disguised as a man who excelled in her studies. She was eventually elevated to Pope until she gave birth and was beaten to death by an angry mob. While the veracity of Pope Joan is disputed (many see her story as a piece of anti-propaganda designed to vilify Catholics), the existence of a chair with a hole in the seat, called the sella stercoraria, supposedly verified that the chosen pope was a man by exposing his genitals. It’s a fascinating story, with traction probably due in no small part to the Catholic Church’s severity regarding issues of sexuality and vulgarity. The idea of a female pope has also received significant pop culture attention: a German novel and film spinoff detailing the life of Pope Joan was released in 2009, much to the chagrin of the Vatican.
Though it has been years since Pope Joan supposedly reigned, women are still underrepresented in the Catholic Church. The ordination of women is a crime under penalty of excommunication, and on issues that matter to women, from birth control to the number of women holding power in the Catholic Church, the Vatican has a long way to go in terms of progress. Pope Joan may be a myth, but until the Catholic Church takes a stronger stance on women’s issues, the idea of a women Pope today seems just as fictional.