Legend of female pope endures as men decide church's next leader

A woman pope? The story of Pope Joan
A woman pope? The story of Pope Joan

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Story highlights

  • The Vatican's upper echelon appears to be an exclusive men's club
  • Women aren't allowed to be ordained as priests, so they cannot become pope
  • Still, many women hold executive lay positions in Catholic organizations
  • Some believe there was once a female pope; movies have been made about the medieval tale

There are approximately 600 million Catholic women in the world, but none will have a direct say in who the next pope will be.

The 115 cardinals voting for the pope are men.

One of these men will be chosen to succeed Benedict XVI, continuing an exclusively male club.

Or is it?

Two movies have been made about Pope Joan, who, according to legend, was a ninth-century Englishwoman who disguised herself under voluminous clerical robes to become a priest, something women are not allowed to be in the Catholic Church.

As the story goes, Joan outdid all the men in her religious studies and rose in the ranks of the cardinals to become pope. She then went into labor during a papal procession and the mob descended on her and her child, ending her reign.

Diarmaid MacCulloch, a theologian and historian from Oxford University, said the story of Pope Joan is a myth, nothing but satirical fiction.

"It keeps appealing to new anxieties and new interests," he said. "So first it's medieval people who resented the papacy. Then it's Protestants. Then it's French revolutionaries who want to discredit the church.

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"The next constituency is actually Catholics who want to see women priests. And this seems to me the most dangerous aspect of the story, because it's using a story which is patently nonsense to boost a good cause."

But Pope Joan still has her believers. Why, they ask, were cardinals asked to sit on a uniquely shaped chair well into the 16th century? Was it a birthing chair? Or, as legend holds, a specially designed seat for checking the next Pope had the right, shall we say, equipment for the job?

What about the peculiarly named Vicus Papissa, or Road of the Lady Pope, a medieval alleyway shunned by papal processions? This, according to legend, is where Pope Joan came to an end. There is even a shrine said to be dedicated to her and her child.

Historians say the road is named not for Pope Joan, but for the Pape family that lived there. Still, the legend endures, as do calls for women to break through the stained-glass ceiling and have a greater say in the church.

At Rome's Church of St. Lucia, the art on the walls highlights the central role that women have had in the church's past. Catholics revere Mary, the mother of Jesus, and church history is replete with female saints who struggled and died for the faith. Others refused to stay silent when they saw evil in the church's ranks: In the 14th century, St. Catherine of Siena famously called the cardinals "devils in human form."

"Everyone would like to have more women everywhere, because this is a fact that is not possible to stop: Nowadays, women are very, very strong," said Alessandra Candrelli, one of the many women worshiping at the Church of St. Lucia.

A bit of female advice might help the church steer its way through troubled waters, said Donna Orsuto, a professor from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

"It certainly brings more balance when you have contact with women and when you listen to women especially and listen to their perspective," she said. "And I think a lot of the ways that this (abuse) crisis was handled in the church, to have had more women's input in dealing with it would have been a better thing."

Who are the front-runners to replace Benedict XVI?

Sister Mary Ann Walsh of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops concedes that the church's hierarchy is male-dominated, but said women do occupy important lay positions in Catholic social and relief organizations.

"If you take ordination off the table, in the U.S. our statistics are better than the Department of Labor when it comes to women in executive positions," Walsh said.

For now, however, women have at best an indirect influence on the Vatican's upper echelon.

"Certainly the church is not a democratic society in the way civil society understands," said Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins of Portugal. "It's a hierarchical church, therefore not everyone is equal."

Women's voices might be louder than before, but will there ever be a female pope? MacCulloch said he could see it happening one day.

"It's surprising how quickly these things happen once the idea gets around," he said. "But don't hold your breath."