A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Was there once a female pope?

November 20, 1987

Dear Cecil:

I've read that a respectable number of disrespectable popes in the early Roman Catholic Church had illegitimate children. I understand that many of these children became cardinals in the church, some eventually ascending to the papal throne with infallibility. Does the Catholic Church officially acknowledge these transgressions, and, if so, how does it rationalize them? Also, is there any truth to the scandalous story of an ancient pope's bastard daughter disguising herself as a man, becoming a respected cardinal in the church, and finally getting elected pope by his/her peers — only to be stoned to death by an angry Roman crowd that discovered "him" hiding an advanced pregnancy under those heavy velvet robes?

Cecil replies:

A lot of the rumors about the "bad popes" are true, but let's not get ridiculous. The female pope story is generally regarded as a fabrication. "Pope Joan," who supposedly served from 855 to 858, was said to be an Englishwoman who disguised herself as a monk to be with her cleric boyfriend. She went to Rome, where she so impressed others with her learning that she was elected pope. Her secret was discovered when she gave birth during a procession, whereupon she was slain. The story is false, although it was possibly inspired by actual events, about which more in a moment.

But many other papal horror stories are entirely legit. In many cases, in fact, weaknesses of the flesh were the least of the popes' sins. In the Middle Ages many popes were elevated to office following the murder of their predecessors. During one particularly grim period from 882 to 1046, there were 37 popes, some of whom served only a few weeks.

Leo V (903), for instance, had been pope for only a month before being imprisoned and tortured by one Christophorus, who then enthroned himself. Both men were killed in 904 on the orders of Pope Sergius III (904-911). Sergius later had a son by his teenaged mistress Marozia who became Pope John XI (931-935). In 914, according to one chronicler, Marozia's mother Theodora installed her lover on the papal throne as John X (914-928). (Theodora and Marozia effectively controlled the papacy through their menfolk and may be the source of the Pope Joan legend.) John XII (955-963), who ascended to the papacy at 19, was accused, perhaps falsely, of sleeping with his father's mistress, committing incest with his niece, and castrating a deacon.

Murder gave way to bribery as a route to the papacy in later centuries; some 40 popes are believed to have bought their jobs. But the lax attitude toward celibacy remained unchanged. In large part this was because the Church was an important route to wealth and power. Sons of influential families were pushed into Church careers much as we might send a kid to MBA school, apparently with similar expectations regarding morals. Noblemen with mistresses saw no reason to adjust their life-styles just because they had taken vows.

The spectacle of cardinals and popes putting their "nephews" into cushy jobs was a standing joke in Rome for centuries. Innocent VIII (1484-1492) had a son and daughter who lived with him in the Vatican. The notorious Alexander VI (1492-1503), born Rodrigo Borgia, had at least four illegitimate children while still a cardinal, among them the cutthroat Cesare Borgia and the reputed poisoner Lucrezia Borgia (actually, she probably never poisoned anybody). Clement VII (1523-1534), himself illegitimate, had a son whom he attempted to make duke of Florence. Paul III (1534-1539) had four kids; two teen grandsons he made cardinals. Pius IV (1559-1565) had three children, and the list goes on.

The Catholic Church has been reasonably forthcoming about the bad popes, having opened the Vatican archives to historians in the 19th century. The Church acknowledges that the office has been held by unworthy men, but maintains that their spiritual capacities were unimpaired by their temporal failings — a line that one hears more often these days in connection with politicians. The doctrine of papal infallibility applies only to certain formal pronouncements on faith and morals, so it can be argued that the bad popes did not lead the church permanently astray. But it's not a position I would care to defend before a congressional committee.

The dogmatic view

Dear Cecil:

There were several errors in your column on the disreputable popes.

You said, "The Church acknowledges that the office has been held by unworthy men, but maintains that their spiritual capacities were unimpaired by their temporal failings." The first part of that statement is correct. The second is false. The Church always has and always will teach that you cannot serve two masters. No one can lead a carnal life of habitual self-gratification and still maintain a healthy spiritual life, not even popes. Those popes who lead lascivious lives, sired bastards, or murdered rivals did so precisely because they lacked spiritual capacities.

Your readers should be reminded that we celebrate no feast in honor of Alexander VI, and I've heard that Dante Alighieri consigned a few prelates to choice real estate in the Inferno. What is important to note is that none of these poor Vicars of Christ ever attempted to define a doctrine as infallibly true or condemn a certain type of conduct as infallibly immoral. They were too preoccupied with other matters, let us say, to be concerned with dogma.

That brings me to another incorrect statement: "The doctrine of papal infallibility applies only to certain formal pronouncements on faith and morals." Few Catholics understand that it is not only the Extraordinary Magisterium (teaching authority) that is infallible, but the Ordinary Magisterium also. To prove this, all you have to do is read the Constitution Dei Filius of the First Vatican Council. It sets forth the twofold nature of the Church's infallible Magisterium in these words: "It is a duty to believe ... all ... that the Church puts forward to be believed as revealed truth either in a solemn judgment [a formal ex cathedra pronouncement such as the Immaculate Conception] or by her ordinary and universal Magisterium."

The formal pronouncements you said were the only infallible ones are quite rare and exceptional. Pope John Paul II traveling around the globe reminding the faithful of the teachings of the Church is the most dramatic and common exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium today. When he reiterates something the Church has always taught, he speaks infallibly. Just because there are no bells and whistles, no pomp and incense, doesn't mean Catholics can ignore his doctrine.

A picky point, you say? Not at all. Too many Catholics today think they don't have to believe something just because the Pope didn't speak ex cathedra about it. Nonsense. The theological mark of heresy applies not only to what contradicts a defined truth, but also to what conflicts with a truth clearly put forward by the Ordinary Magisterium. The "solemn judgment" only adds a juridical obligation to a moral obligation, with accompanying penalties.

There are some other questionable statements as well. For instance, you said Pius IV had three children, "and the list goes on." As a matter of fact, that's where the list ends.

An important points seems to have escaped you and your questioner. Despite the bad popes, the Church is still here after two thousand years. As the Jew in one of Boccaccio's stories said after returning from Rome to embrace Catholicism, "any organization that can survive such corruption must be the true Church."

But for those minor details, it was an interesting article.

Cecil replies:

Ah, Richard, I'm afraid it is you who are mistaken. Ain't it always the way?

1. By "spiritual capacities" I didn't mean the popes' personal morals but rather their ability to call down the blessings of God on the faithful. The bad popes consecrated priests, forgave sins, baptized babies, and so on. The Church maintains that these acts were not invalidated by the fact that the pope may have been in a state of sin at the time.

2. Regarding papal infallibility, the Encyclopedia Britannica says, "The definition of the first Vatican Council ... states the conditions under which a pope may be said to have spoken infallibly, or ex cathedra. It is prerequisite that the pope intend to demand irrevocable assent from the entire church in some aspect of faith or morals." The ordinary teachings of the Church, by contrast, are not infallible. The pope can say what he likes about birth control, for example, and Catholics are obliged to obey, at least in the conservative view. But until he makes an infallible pronouncement on the subject, he has the option of someday changing his mind.

3. The list of illegitimate papal children "goes on" in the sense that I did not mention every single pope who was literally a holy father. For instance, there's a tradition that Pope Hormisdas (514-523) was the father of Pope Silverius (536-537). It may not be proper to call Silverius illegitimate, since the rule of clerical celibacy was not firmly established in the early Church. Exactly how many papal children there were is probably impossible to determine, due to the lack of documentation for such things.

But for these minor details, it was an interesting letter.

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