Skip to main content

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

From Atika Shubert and Ben Wedeman, CNN
March 13, 2013 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
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

(CNN) -- 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.

Vatican's men-only policy
Catholic Church at a crossroads
Inside the conclave: How it works
American nuns' outlook on next pope

"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.

"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."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1631 GMT (0031 HKT)
Not a jot of doctrine has changed in the year since Francis became Pope. But there's more than one way to measure his impact. Just ask some of the faithful in the country's most Catholic city.
February 22, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Pope Francis created 19 new cardinals in a ceremony in the Vatican's St. Peter's Basilica -- the first such appointments since he was elected pontiff last March.
March 13, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
"The spring evening in which Pope Francis was elected is an apt symbol of the beginning of his papacy and the years that will follow," writes Fr. Joel Camaya.
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1605 GMT (0005 HKT)
In a gesture toward the romance of Valentine's Day, Pope Francis gave his advice on how to have a happy marriage before thousands of young engaged couples.
January 16, 2014 -- Updated 1912 GMT (0312 HKT)
A senior Vatican official acknowledged Thursday there is "no excuse" for child sex abuse, as he and others were grilled by a U.N. committee about the Catholic Church's handling of pedophile priests.
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 2010 GMT (0410 HKT)
Take a look at Pope Francis' first year in photos with our gallery.
December 25, 2013 -- Updated 0922 GMT (1722 HKT)
Pope Francis rang in his first Christmas at the Vatican with a Christmas Eve Mass preaching a message of love and forgiveness.
November 7, 2013 -- Updated 2343 GMT (0743 HKT)
It was the embrace that melted hearts worldwide.
July 8, 2013 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
On the first pastoral visit of his papacy, Pope Francis shunned protocol and politics on a visit to the tiny island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily.
April 3, 2013 -- Updated 0959 GMT (1759 HKT)
On Easter Sunday, Pope Francis kisses and hugs disabled boy lifted up in the crowd.
April 11, 2013 -- Updated 1609 GMT (0009 HKT)
With the new pope himself a trained scientist, could the timing could be right for a new era of cooperation between the Vatican and science?
March 16, 2013 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Pope Francis is being painted as a humble and simple man, but his past is tinged with controversy.
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1409 GMT (2209 HKT)
One of the first questions many people ask when they start a new job is: What type of car will I get?
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Call him Pope Francis, the pontiff of firsts.
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina is known as a humble man, a capable administrator and -- as expected of a new pope -- a man of great faith.
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 1725 GMT (0125 HKT)
Catholic faithful from Latin America cheered the historic election of the first pope from the region Wednesday.
March 14, 2013 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
St. Francis of Assisi, after whom Pope Francis has taken his name, captures the spirit of many Catholics.
ADVERTISEMENT