Dear Fr. Joe: Was there really a Pope Joan?
There’s a movie coming out about someone called “Pope Joan.” My teacher said there was no such person and my parents don’t want me to see the movie. What can you tell me about her – was there really a female pope in the 16th century?
Sorry, folks – but while there have been popes and lots of Joans, there’s never been a Pope Joan. Let’s start by helping those folks who have no idea what we’re talking about here.
What is the legend of Pope Joan? Well, there are a couple different accounts of this story. As near as anyone can tell, a Dominican in the 13th century was the first to mention it in writing. A summary of the story of Pope Joan goes like this:
Between Popes Leo IV and Benedict the III, a woman was pope for about two-and-a-half years. She managed to get elected pope because she dressed and acted like a man for most of her life. While pope, she became pregnant by a papal advisor and then gave birth in public unexpectedly during a procession in Rome. When her deception was revealed, some of the stories have her being tortured to death by the church, some have her getting killed by an angry mob.
So, that’s the story. For a while, it was somewhat accepted as a real historical event. However, it didn’t and can’t hold up to the light of investigation.
The problem is, there are too many holes in the story. Many mothers reading this will point to the whole “giving birth unexpectedly during a procession” line, but I’ll leave that one alone.
The biggest problem is the historical one. There isn’t a timeline that makes it fit. I’ll break it down as best I can, with kudos to newadvent.org for giving me a timeline I can understand.
So, Pope Leo IV died on July 17, 855. Immediately, the clergy and people of Rome elected Benedict III the new pope, as a man named Hadrian refused the position. The problem was that there was an “anti-pope,” Anastasius (not the saint),who caused quite a stir. Because of that, Benedict III was not consecrated until September 29th of 855. Now, while that leaves us with a short gap, it’s not the two-and-a-half year gap the story of Pope Joan needs to make it succeed.
Besides the timeline issue, we also have coins that have on them both Pope Benedict III and Emperor Lothair at the same time. Emperor Lothair died on Sept. 28, 855; clearly, Benedict III was recognized as Pope during this supposed period of a male impersonator as pope.
So, why does this story make the rounds if it can’t stand up to scrutiny? I would assume that there are enough people out there who wish it was true that it’s repeated.
Wait. You typed “anti-pope”. What’s an anti-pope?
Well, an anti – pope is just what it sounds like: a man who claims to be pope when we already have one legally elected. Often, these anti-popes even attempted to make rulings and decisions and the like. There appear to have been about 30 anti-popes in our 2,000-year history.
So, there it is! Hopefully, this helps shed some light on the real situation.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!