“Pope Joan”

by Jimmy Akin

in History

A reader writes:

On Thursday there will be a Diane Sawyer special about the evidence for a female Pope Joan.  Are there any holes in the historical record that could account for this or is it a completely rediculous claim?  Where could I find some information on this?

I normally recommend J. N. D. Kelly’s book The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, because Kelly is a Protestant historian and he has an appendix in this book that totally slams the Pope Joan myth.

Unfortunately, most couldn’t consult this book before the broadcast, so I suggest these sources:



The fact that ABC is dumping this story on Thursday in the week between Christmas and New Years (a LOW viewership time) suggests that they don’t have confidence in it, which only increases their culpability in broadcasting it.


Incidentally, a number of years ago I was at my desk at Catholic Answers when I was routed a call from a major Hollywood producer (who shall remain nameless, but who was quite famous and had a lot of credits to his name) who wanted to ask me about sources for Pope Joan to help his upcoming TV/movie project on her.

He was quite alarmed when I told him that Pope Joan was a myth, and he indicated that he was going to go back to the people who had pitched the idea to press them about this fact.

The project never got made.

I wish all producers had as much integrity as this guy did!

Unfortunately, they don’t, and there is a Pope Joan movie coming out of Germany next year.

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bill912 December 29, 2005 at 6:56 am

More evidence that ABC stands for “Always Bash Catholics”.

Jamie Beu December 29, 2005 at 7:01 am

Sent the following (paraphrasing you a few times) to ABC – as if they read these things…
It’s a sad comment on the state of journalism today that you are airing this “Pope Joan” story. I thought Diane Sawyer was supposed to be a better journalist than this.
Have you not even done the most basic research into this, such as going to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pope_Joan or reading J. N. D. Kelly’s book “The Oxford Dictionary of Popes”, which contains an excellent appendix that totally slams the Pope Joan myth – and Kelly’s a Protestant!
Is this really just an example of poor journalism (like Dan Rather’s mess), or is this evidence of ABC jumping on the anti-Christian bandwagon spearheaded by “The Da Vinci Code”?

Chris Meisenzahl December 29, 2005 at 8:03 am

Anything that can be done to undermine traditional Catholicism is always a favorite of the MSM.

BillyHW December 29, 2005 at 8:26 am

Why isn’t Dan Rather in jail yet? I mean, shouldn’t he be?
This video pretty much sums up the current state of the MSM (warning Realplayer video):

DFP December 29, 2005 at 9:05 am

Here is a Newsbusters post on the topic:
“ABC, Diane Sawyer Push Anti-Catholic ‘Pope Joan’ Tale”

Tim J. December 29, 2005 at 9:31 am

I will lay dollars to little chocolate donuts that the show will basically conclude with the stock “could it be…?” ending, implying that it is “still a mystery” or “we may never know”.
Which is rot.
Savvy media types learned a long time ago that you don’t necessarily have to offer real evidence, if the accusation is sensational enough.
In fact, it works much better for them if there is not TOO much evidence.

Ed Peters December 29, 2005 at 10:41 am

I would say to ABC that I will stop watching them, but I did that, truly, years ago. Their latest stunt just makes it easier to keep my resolve–which has never wavered anyway.

Eric Giunta December 29, 2005 at 11:00 am

Um . . . guys?
Why are we protesting a show we have not seen yet, or one which we have no info on how it ends?
Why isn’t it possible that it turns out to work to our advantage? Couldn’t it be an objective investigation into the facts, and conclude with, “It’s a myth, folks.”
Like I said, it might do well to dispel a popular myth.
I remember all the uproar over the Dtateline special on the DaVinci Code . . . and for nothing! The special completely debunked (to the extent that a TV special could in 50 minutes) the more well-publicized claims of the novel. Did us a lot of good. Maybe the same thing will happen here?
The special on heaven was interesting, and respectfully done.

Tim J. December 29, 2005 at 11:20 am

I well remember Peter Jennings’ special on Jesus.
He saved us all a lot of investigative legwork by declaring that, really, “most scholars” don’t think that Jesus worked miracles or rose from the dead.
I don’t hold out much hope for this one, but if I am wrong I will be happy to eat crow right on this here ‘blog.

Kevin Jones December 29, 2005 at 11:39 am

Why isn’t it possible that it turns out to work to our advantage? Couldn’t it be an objective investigation into the facts, and conclude with, “It’s a myth, folks.”

Generally such specials end up making paranoid allegations that the truth has been covered up, or insipid “you decide!” exhortations. If you can name some recent investigative shows that say “all a myth!” besides those run by John Stossel, I’d sure like to see it.
I do wonder if the network, knowing the low TV viewership this time of year, hopes the controversy will draw in a few more viewers. They’re piggybacking on Dan Brown, of course.

TJW December 29, 2005 at 4:06 pm

Looks like the wikipedia article has been altered by a supporter of the theory.

TJW December 29, 2005 at 4:22 pm

It was fixed within minutes!

Jonathan Sadow December 29, 2005 at 8:07 pm

That’s why I don’t trust Wikipedia for information on any topic that could be considered controversial. What you read there is as much a function of who made the last revision as whether it’s actually true.

StubbleSpark December 29, 2005 at 9:35 pm

I am willing to entertain the notion that this “special” may work out in our favor.
The Pope Joan myth was absolutely nowhere in the news lately. It is not part of some sensationalist book, nor is it a part of some battlecry by anti-Catholic organizations. In fact, I had never heard about it before becoming Catholic (nor would I have cared if I did hear about it in those days).
So the story is fundamentally neither topical, nor relevant. Succinctly put, it is NOT news.
Regardless of ABC’s intentions, they are dredging up an old, popularly disproved myth for the sake of “infotainment” (despite the fact it is neither “info” nor “tainment”). They are going out of their way to create a sensation. This in and of itself is bad because, even if you assume ABC’s goal is to definitively disprove this myth, (a waste of time considering this has already been done) not everyone will watch it or watch it to its conclusion and the damage will have been done.
As the token faithful Catholic in my workplace, I already have a headache over the leering and jeering about to come my way (c’est la vie, I guess). Not to mention the damage control I will have to engage in to convince my wildly anti-Catholic, Secularist, Liberal, Protestant family members.
So thanks ABC for making a non-issue an issue. What’s next? Why not propagate other myths? Like the Church declared the heliocentric theory heretical (Galileo lacked mathematical proof sufficient to explain the lack of stellar parallax), the Church would not let Columbus sail around the world because she said it was flat (the Jesuits said it was too big, their calculations were right), or that Pope Pius XII was a coward who herded Jews into concentration camps (“Righteous Gentile” who save more lives than all other underground railroads COMBINED).
The only way this could possibly be given a topical twist would be to somehow try to tie it in with priestess ordination, but even that would be stretch — and a decidedly anti-Catholic one at that. So, in the end, my guess is that they are up to no good. I’m gonna sic.

Puzzled December 29, 2005 at 11:37 pm

It is incredible, literally, that they could do research and think that at such a time, with so much surviving textual material, historians could know or not know of a female pope. Not to mention the seismic waves it would have made throughout the church, if it had been true.

Marty Helgesen December 30, 2005 at 5:44 am

Unfortunately, Pope Joan has been in the news. The novel Pope Joan by Donna Cross is a major best seller in Germany and is selling well here too. It is being made into a movie. Publicity compares it to The DaVinci Code, which is true in that each one is a load of dingoes’s kidneys.
The reliabibility of the program was indicated at the beginning when Diane Sawyer, talking about the status of women, said that the expression “rule of thumb” came from a law that a man could beat his wife with a stick if it wasn’t thicker than his thumb. This is widely cirulated nonsense. As Christina Hoff Sommers pointed out in her book Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, it comes from woodworkers, who used their thumbs as a rough measuring guide. It came into metaphorical use by the seventeenth century.
(Some years ago when someone referred to rule of thumb in another context I observed that the Thumb Dynasty was one of the longer lasting in history.)

M.Z. Forrest December 30, 2005 at 6:30 am

What amazing balance the show had! Aging, angry feminist after aging, angy feminist.

William December 30, 2005 at 12:23 pm

Here’s the latest poll of AOL users:
Do you think there was a Pope Joan?
Yes, seems so 61%
No, it’s an urban legend 22%
I can’t decide 17%
Total Votes: 33,318

Andrew December 30, 2005 at 1:24 pm

That’s really sad that some people will believe stuff like that. I voted no since I have AOL, but it still bothers me that so many would think that. I sent an email to complain to ABC.

scotch meg December 30, 2005 at 8:54 pm

Here’s a very interesting interaction with Donna Cross. A few years ago, a book club of which I was a member decided to read “Pope Joan” because the author would meet by telephone with book clubs reading her book. After reading the book (a library copy because I remembered the original reviews and didn’t want to pay her royalties), I wrote the other members at length and told them that I could not attend the meeting because I was so angry about the untruths found in the book and the deliberate anticatholicism displayed. The book club decided to bifurcate the meeting because they wanted me there; in the end the problem was solved by a phone call from Ms. Cross’ publicist informing us that her father had died and she was not available to speak with us. I was feeling a bit sorry for my lack of charity — but other members of the book club wondered how many times her father had “died”! After reading the book, they had decided that it was extremely poorly written and that the teleconference offer was just a ploy to sell this lousy book. I was just relieved that I didn’t have to face off against someone who had had more time to do research to back up her idiotic theory than I had to refute it.

StubbleSpark December 31, 2005 at 8:31 pm

Looks like Donna is going to be yet another Cross for us to bear!

Tricia January 1, 2006 at 5:15 pm

I hadn’t heard a thing about this…..until today. I was at a birthday party for a friend and a group of women chattering (a more accurate picture would be gossiping) at the table when they stumbled onto this subject…the conversation veered in all sorts of ugly directions-it was an outright persecution of the Church. They were like savage beasts poised to make the kill. They were on fire with hatred..hatred for the Church. They had bought all of the arguements that the nonCatholic world has sought to provide them with. The most disturbing part of all is the fact that all 4 women participating in the conversation are members of the CATHOLIC Church. Though I would guess that most have fallen away from regular Mass attendance.
Some of the things that were said included….
(I believe it… the Catholic Church has lots of dirty little secrets they don’t want people to know….)
(Alot of the Da Vinci arguments were presented by these women as truth…the church conspiracy to cover up the real truth,etc.)
(That a Woman priest/pope gave birth to a baby and the church killed it)
(That from the time of Pope Joan on.. the church had a special chair in which at the ordination someone put their hand through the hole to make sure the pope was a man with testicles!)
(How dead the Catholic Church is…that you can hear it when people at mass drone on and on…blah blah blah)
(One woman said she wouldn’t be suprised look at the priest scandal after all…the priest is, of course, a MAN first and foremost..suggesting that all men are animals who are slaves to their sexual desires. Priests and the Catholic Church were presented as evil forces in the world)
Funny, that while enjoying the attack on their prey..not one of them noticed the Miraculous Medal hanging from my neck. There was no concern about offending others in the room, because the opinions which came from them are, of course, very politically correct (for lack of a better word) in American Culture today. It would seem , at least culturally speaking, the Catholic Church is under persecution.
I have had other encounters with both my sister and another Dear friend in which they present the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene as completely plausible. The question I ask myself is “Why do people trust the entertainment industry to provide them with historical fact? Don’t they even think to question the fact that these media companies have an agenda? ….that being to make money and lots of it (everyone knows that controversy sells)”
I left this party disillusioned. I have heard that the Church has plans to air a show in March debunking the DaVinci Code. But, I wonder how effective can it possibly be? The fact is people are drawn to scandal and they want to believe it. All we can do is try to spread the truth, but I am worried that the casualties (to the faith) will be high.

Kosh January 1, 2006 at 6:09 pm

I wonder if those 4 women had ANY evidence whatsoever to back up their audacious claims?

bill912 January 1, 2006 at 6:14 pm

Since there isn’t any evidence to support their position, I doubt it. But evidence to the contrary will not convince bigots.

Benjamin I. Espen January 1, 2006 at 10:03 pm

Cecil Adams did a Straight Dope column on this subject a while ago. He is surprisingly good on questions like this, even though some of the discussion in the followup to the column about what counts as infallible is a little off the mark.

Kosh January 2, 2006 at 12:36 pm

Cecil’s post is interesting and his comments about ‘bad popes’ are also interesting.

joe January 24, 2007 at 8:15 am

I think the idea of Pope Joan is just stupid. I need no reason.

Jamie Beu September 11, 2007 at 1:43 pm

There is a Pope Joan movie slated for release in 2009. However, there is not a lot of information about it, except that it is supposedly a remake of a 1972 movie by the same name.
Pray that it doesn’t get made.

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