Monthly Archives: July 2012

Question: Were there women popes?

Marcy asks, “Were there women popes?”  

There is a dark legend in Church history, stemming from the 13th century, of a great scandal that occurred in Rome between the pontificates of Pope Leo IV (847-55) and Benedict III (855-58) (or in the first decade of the 1100s): A woman was somehow elected pope.  The story usually goes thus: A young woman entered a monastery disguised as a monk in order to study.  She took a lover, who moved her up through the rankings of the Church, so that she might be close to him.  Her reputation as a brilliant mind grew, and she was elected pope.  However, she kept her lover (or found another) because the legend continues with her becoming pregnant, hiding the signs of her pregnancy under her papal robes.  She managed to hide this minor detail for the entire length of her pregnancy until one day, during a procession from St. Peter’s on the Vatican to St. John Lateran, she gave birth, much to the shock and horror of the crowd.  She died in one way or another (some say she died in childbirth, others say the crowd killed her, others say she and the baby were burned alive, and one record even states that she was dragged around by a horse and stoned to death), and thus ends the sordid tale of Pope Joan (as post-Reformation Church critics would call her, though the earlier medieval manuscripts all refer to her by the name of “John”).  Her legacy remains, according to those who argue for her existence, in a statue on the Via San Giovanni in Laterano, the road that leads to St. John Lateran (late medieval guides for pilgrims mentioned the statue), in a bust in the cathedral in Siena, and in over 500 medieval manuscripts which mention the story, or at least reference a pope named Joan. 

Pretty convincing, huh?  Lots of historical documents, exact dates, and artistic representations seem to provide ample evidence that there was a woman who reigned as pope and lost the papal throne due to childbirth.  The integrity of the papacy is ruined!  The Catholic Church has lost its claim to authority! 

A closer look, however, proves the claims false.  There was no Pope Joan. 

Our examination of the claims concerning Pope Joan turns to two well-researched sources.  The first is very sympathetic to the Church, an article written by Dennis Barton over at; the other comes from John Julius Norwich’s recent book Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (Random House, 2011), which is less sympathetic to Catholic history.  Both men come to the same conclusion: Pope Joan never existed. 

The earliest references to a female pope come from Jean de Mailly, a French Dominican who wrote the Chronica Universalis Metensis around the year 1250, who mentioned a female pope “who is not set down in the lists of popes or bishops of Rome, because she was a woman who disguised herself as a man” (quoted in Norwich, 64).  Mailly claims the whole female pope scandal occurred in 1099, historically when Pope Paschal II began his reign (Mailly postponed Paschal’s reign until 1106, cutting Paschal’s nineteen-year reign by seven years).  The other major source of the legend is another Dominican, Martin Polonus, who in his Chronicon Pontificum et Imperatum wrote the most famous record of the female pope (he places her story between the papacies of Leo IV and Benedict III).  The earliest edition of Martin Polonus’ work does not include the story, however, and it seems that it was added after the monk’s death.  The story appears throughout the Middle Ages, repeated with little variation from Polonus’ work (Polonus had been a chaplain for Pope Clement IV, and had thus earned an air of authority in all things papal).  It is this story that inspired later interpretations of the legend. 

But the Polonus legend falls apart under any serious examination.  The time he gives for Joan’s reign, between Popes Leo IV and Benedict III, leaves Joan only two months to reign, from July 17 – September 29, 855 (this assumes, of course, the impossible: an instantaneous papal election).  This is clearly not enough time to do any/all of the activities attributed to Joan.  The historical circumstances surrounding the election of Pope Benedict (worthy in itself of a short blog post. . . ) were crazy enough without throwing a woman papal claimant into the mix. 

No contemporary historian or writer at that time mentions a woman pope; antipope Anastasius (who also tried to be pope in the confusion) makes no mention of her in the memoirs of his antipope reign.  Likewise, Benedict III’s successor, Pope St. Nicholas the Great, makes no mention of a woman papal claimant, even as antipope, and says he immediately succeeded Benedict, who immediately succeeded Leo.  Likewise, Patriarch Photius of Constantinople, no friend of the papacy and papal authority, refers to Pope Nicholas (with whom he was embroiled in a controversy known as the Photian Schism) as following Leo and Benedict in progression of the papal throne.  If he wanted to attack Nicholas’ authority, what better weapon could there be than a scandalous female pope.  No such mention exists in any of Photius’ writings.  In a similar story, Pope St. Leo IX, in the 1050s, wrote to and criticized Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople for allowing eunuchs to be patriarchs in the eastern half of Christendom.  This too easily allowed for women to sneak into the role of bishop, the pope argued; no counter-reply from Constantinople cited the shocking story of a woman pope.  There is simply not enough historical evidence that Pope Joan lived when she was supposed to have lived. 

But what of the multiple documents that refer to her existence?  Dennis Barton notes that all of these major works, from the 9th century through the early decades of the 13th century, do not mention the story of the female pope in their earliest manuscripts; mention of a female pope does not appear in copies of the documents before 1275.  It was after the publication of Martin Polonus’ story that these earlier documents included their own copy of Polonus’ account. 

Also, upon examining the medieval guides for pilgrims in Rome, one does not see any reference to the story of a woman pope nor the statue that marked where she supposedly gave birth until after 1377, when the papacy returned to Rome from France (definitely the topic of another post).  Perhaps the return of the popes sparked an interest in sensational stories, and a woman pope would fit perfectly into the pilgrims’ curious mindset.  As for the notorious sedes stercoraria, large porphyry thrones with a large hole in the seat supposedly designed to check if a pope was a man, there is no mention of their use in any of the papal ceremony texts of the Church. 

So there we have it.  The story of Pope Joan doesn’t add up.  She does not fit into the history of the papacy.  Her shocking story only appears in chronicles written 400 years after her supposed reign.  “Not one contemporary chronicler nor one letter written anywhere in Rome or Europe mentioned a pope who had given birth in public. Yet this would have been the news story of the age” (Barton, 3).   And, as John Norwich notes, “the best argument of all is the sheer improbability of a female pope, a long deception, a hidden pregnancy, a sudden birth in public” (Norwich, 70).  Thus settles the story of Pope Joan. 

So no, there has not been a female pope in Church history, nor can there ever be one, as the pope is a bishop, and therefore a priest, and since only men can be priests in the Catholic Church, there cannot be a female pope in the future. 

For further reading

Dennis Barton, “Pope Joan,” Church in History, (May 29, 2006), available at, accessed July 30, 2012. 

John Julius Norwich, Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy (New York: Random House, 2011), 63–70. 

Johann Peter Kirsch, “Popess Joan” in The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. VIII (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), available at, accessed July 30, 2012. 

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Reflection: What is/are apologetics?

A few years ago I received an email which had in it a Catholic IQ test.  I have search for this quiz for years, and have not yet found it.  Sorry for the bubble burst.  Anyway, one of the questions was “Apologetics means” and then there were four options.  I don’t even remember the wording of the right answer.  I just remember one of the wrong ones:


“Never having to say you’re sorry.”


It’s more true than one might think, but its still not quite right (and the Love Story reference is enough to make one squirm).  Apologetics has nothing to do with apologizing in the way we use the word in English.  When we apologize normally, we say we are sorry for some wrong done, and by doing so promise to correct what was wrong.  In Apologetics, however, your purpose isn’t to say you are sorry and admit you were wrong.  On the contrary, you are proclaiming that your belief is correct.  You are defending your beliefs and convictions.  You are fighting a battle, an intellectual, albeit, and you are not backing down, and you are certainly not saying sorry. 


When you think Apologetics, think of Plato’s The Apology.  In this dialogue, the great philosopher Socrates defends his philosophy before an Athenian court.  Socrates is not apologizing in the way we normally use the word.  He’s not saying sorry for having taught the existence of a spiritual world of Forms, or of the immortality of the soul (which he re-proclaims in this dialogue), but is rather presenting again his arguments.  He is defending his position.  He is Apologizing in the way we use the word here on this blog.  He is seeking to defend his position and by doing so bring his hearers over to his side. 


So it is with Christian Apologetics.  There is a long and glorious history of Christian apologists throughout the last two thousand years of Church history.  Jesus urged his followers not to give up hope in their beliefs, and to not worry what to say when questioned, that He would let them know what to say (Luke 21:13–15).  Likewise, St. Peter, the first pope, encouraged the faithful to “Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).  Generations of Christians have done just that. 


St. Justin Martyr was one of the first, and perhaps most famous, early apologist.  He defended the Church’s teachings before two Roman Emperors (while, one should not, Christianity was still illegal) and in a dialogue with Trypho the Jew.  In both cases, Justin sought to defend the Faith in his writing; he is an apologist.  Many of the Fathers of the Church likewise wrote in defense of the Faith, especially during the 4th and 5th centuries, when heresies drove the Church to clarify her teachings about God, Christ, and grace.  Men like St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Hilary of Poitiers, and St. Jerome all wrote tracts against certain errors of their day, presenting an apology, in the same way Socrates did, of the Christian Faith. 


The need for apologetics died down during the age of Christendom, the Middle Ages, as much of the known world shared the same beliefs.  There are some exceptions, of course.  St. Dominic formed the religious order that bears his name, the Dominicans, in response to a need for clear apologetics in the face of the Albigensian Heresy.  St. Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican, wrote a full summary of the Christian Faith in his Summa Theologica, which was set up in the popular scholastic style of the time.  It is a very effective method of arguing.  First the writer poses a question, the topic of the debate.  Then the dissenting position is given, complete with citations to support their arguments.  Then there is a quote from some authority which questions the dissenting positions.  Then the writer writes a summary of the proper answer to the question.  Finally, the speaker, point by point, responds to the dissenting opinions.  It is a very thorough process, one which remains effective especially in today’s intellectual dialogues. 


The Protestant Revolt (more popularly known as the Reformation) provided the opportunity for a new breed of apologists.  Every Protestant reformer, from Luther to Calvin to Zwingli, presented an apology for their writings, and each one had a counter argument from the Catholic Church.  Perhaps the most definite counter argument lies in the teachings of the Council of Trent, held in three sessions from 1545–1563.  As the age of revolutions swept throughout the world, men became less concerned with arguing over the Faith, more concerned with not loosing their heads (as many clerics did during the French Revolution).  Towards the end of the 19th century and into the early 20th century, a new wave of apologist formed.  Based mainly in England, these men of orthodoxy, such as Chesterton, Belloc, Dawson, and Lewis, sought to defend Christianity first and foremost, for in that age of Modernism and anti-religious sentiments, basic tenants of the Christian Faith needed repeating. 


This push towards a re-Christianization of Europe came to a halt with the turmoil of the mid-20th century.  It was only towards the end of that century, in the late 1970s, 80s, and 90s, that the apology for Christianity continued again in earnest.  That led to a huge boom in apologetic literature, not just from Catholics but from all the various Christian denominations.  The Internet produced a huge wave of people expressing their ideas, no matter how outlandish, and there was soon another person with a counter argument. 


So is the field of apologetics today.  People turn to the internet more so than television, radio, and movies for their education.  So too they turn to answers concerning the Faith.  What does a priest or pastor know?  They’re paid to talk about God.  And soon the Internet becomes a counter-church, wherein the modern man offers himself in sacrifice to a digital deity, seeking scriptures more manufactured than the computer through which he searches.  How much wrong information lingers out there! 


An apologist on the Internet must be aware of such a situation.  He must be as informed as his audience as to the methods and sources of information now used.  Thick theological treatises will no longer satisfy the curious mind.  We no longer have the attention span to sit and read.  An apologist must therefore be brief and to the point.  It will be hard for me, since as you can tell, I’m pretty wordy, but I hope that my presentations will be both informative and inspiring.  Since one of the most crucial attributes of an apologist is his humility, one must be aware of one’s own limitations. 


The ultimate goal of the apologist is not to show off his knowledge about God.  It is to bring souls to the truth.  I do not hope to be the next great apologist; I just want the truth to be known, and known with open hearts, so that in knowing the truth, God might allow his graces to flow into each of your lives. 


God bless you all!

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Quid est “Quidquid Est, Est”?


Ok, calm down everyone, its just a blog title.  Take a deep  breath, one two three, and exhale.

Whew.  I know.  Latin =  Scary.  But what can I say?  Its the only other language besides English in which I can pretend to have some vague competency.  Like how I DID NOT end that sentence in a preposition?  See, I’m cool like that.

And so is this blog!  Well, at least I think its cool.

Welcome to “Quidquid Est, Est!”  The title says it all: “Whatever it is, it is!”  After about an hour of pondering and googling, I decided this would sum up the blog best.  Whatever it is, it is.

What is “it”?  “It” is the answer to your questions.  But not just any random questions.   Here I seek to help you answer your deep, dark questions about life, God, religion, and the Church.

So I should be up front, here and now.

I am a Roman Catholic.  I have been my entire life.  I have attended Catholic schools my entire life, have taught at Catholic schools my entire professional career, and have (or will have, hopefully, soon after this writing) an advanced degree in Systematic Theology.  Religion is part of who I am.  I live my life to serve God and share Him with others.

More on me later.  Back to the blog.

This is a blog of Apologetics (see the forthcoming post about Apologetics), specifically Catholic Apologetics, though as we will see, many of the arguments brought forward are not always from Catholic sources, nor must all of the topics here involve Catholic teaching.  Some of the issues we will discuss will stem from basic questions like “Does God exist,” or “How do I know I can trust the Bible.”  Neither of these questions require you to be a Catholic to answer them.  Other questions might deal more directly with matters of the Catholic Faith; questions will appear involving popes, priests, sacraments, saints, Catholic dogmas and moral teachings, and even what happens to us when we die.  All of these will have varying answers depending on the background of the person answering.

The purpose of this blog is not to offend or otherwise hurt others.  It is to provide truth.  “What is truth,” Pilate asked Jesus (John 18:38), but that rusty Roman did not wait for an answer.  We, however, know the answer.

Jesus had said earlier “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14: 6).

So we begin on a journey for truth.  We begin a voyage, more adventurous than that of Odysseus, Dante, Frodo and Sam, and Littlefoot from The Land Before Time.  We begin a exodus from uncertainty and dismay, from insincerity and dishonesty, to Truth.

Hence the name: Whatever it is, it is.

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