Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sex and the Patriarchy: Habemus

How about the Catholic Church's current, but not-so-new-now Pope? And how about the process that got him there? 

Of course, absolute secrecy being what it is, not a lot about what actually went on inside the cloister made it out into the public discourse, despite the best efforts of Anderson Cooper and the rest. 

And feminist though I am, I’ve got to admit that from the outside, at least, I was more than a little fascinated by the patriarchal lock-step kabuki of it all, the exclusive boys’ club ritual played out in lavish vestments of crimson and white.

But now close your eyes for just a tiny minute. As your mind settles down into the shaded blankness, let your brain imagine a solitary marble chair. Purple in color, large and hard, more like a kind of throne, really, its purpose to impart an aura of solemnity and conjure the heady scents of purpose and power.

Now. Imagine said purple chair with a big ol' hole in its center - like a birthing seat, maybe. Or an elaborate bedside commode. And while you’re at it, imagine the chair’s occupant as a new prospective Pope. Quiet, reserved. Smiling serenely at a few select and esteemed male colleagues.

But the purple chair in question isn’t simply some esoteric aid to sexual pleasure; so when someone reaches a hand beneath the hole in the chair’s middle, the logical question, naturally, becomes why?  So that the old man’s genitals might be vetted, of course. So that the Church might make perfectly, tactilelly certain the person with whom it was dealing was, in fact, a man.

 So picture it, won’t you?

Penis? Check. Testicles? Check. All right then… as it's proclaimed from the balcony of the Sistine Chapel, “Habemus Papam.”  Translating from the Latin this means "We" (meaning those in the Catholic Church) "have a Pope."

But enough of the disturbing imagery, I think… And of course, I’m certainly not asserting that this is what actually went down in Vatican City a couple of days before the Ides of March. After all, the level of secrecy surrounding the whole affair situates age-old whispers about the purple marble chair, and the ritual touchy-feely stuff, firmly in the realm of speculation – nothing more.

Still, narratives of the chair, and the reason for its existence, cling to their place in religious historical secrecy, a shrouded part of the process of selecting a Catholic pope. And if you’re someone like me who believes that the nexus of religion, patriarchy and power has spawned a void in the historical record large enough to swallow a galaxy or two, there’s the irksome little matter of the legend of Pope Joan – a cross-dressing woman around AD 800, also known as English John.

As legend has it, she was the only female Pope, and while she's said to have held the office for a relatively short time, her existence has always been vehemently denied by the Church. No such person, the Vatican claims, dismissing stories of Joan’s rise to pontiff as the perverted fabrications of a pagan-hearted rabble over the long arc of time.

But really, what can you say about Joan, a woman in medieval England who cross-dressed her way through iron-fisted misogyny convincingly enough to survive and thrive in the super-secret shadowy halls of early Christian patriarchy?

In 9th century Europe, when women and girls were flat-out barred from education, the German-born Joan was a formidable scholar who outshined her male colleagues, at least as recorded by the historian Martin Polonus in the 13th century. According to religious scholars who’ve been doggedly on her trail, it was only through strength of intellect, moxie, and the ability to disguise her gender, that this female scholar, proficient in arts and letters, rose in the ranks of the Vatican, first as curial secretary and then, appointed as Pope. Even today, detractors of Pope Joan claim she was adept in the occult and in league with the Devil, no less. How else could she have managed such a grand deception? Born female, after all. How else, indeed?

Whether you believe in her existence or not, I suppose the way she ended should come as no surprise. Legend has it that during her papacy she got pregnant with the child of a close and trusted companion. Unfortunately, she gave birth in the street during a papal procession. She and her newborn infant were stoned to death on the spot, in the street between the Coliseum and the Church of St. Peter.

So what do we make of the legend of Pope Joan? A cautionary tale, perhaps, especially if we buy into the notion that murder-by-medieval-street-mob is in the due course events, when presumptuous penis-less pretenders overstep their bounds. And wouldn’t you know it? It was the waywardness of that wanton female body that proved her undoing, of course!

Still, there’s plenty of gnarly stuff to go around when it comes to organized religion’s often contorted view of us; it’s not just the Catholic church. In some places, menstruating women aren’t allowed to touch certain images of the Buddha. Female members of some Jewish sects are still required to visit a mikvah, a special ritual bath believed to cleanse them, body and spirit, after their periods. And as troublesome as some of this may seem, the inherent implication that there’s something faulty, lacking, and hopelessly deficient about female bodies is what troubles me the most. After all, most of what we believe about the perimeters of our sexuality is couched in the religious doctrine we’ve been marinating in over time.

But even now, as the new Pope Francis attempts to lead a world-wide church racked with scandal and abuse - a church steeped in a flat-earth view of women that’s based upon a notion of bodily fault and deficiency - the tale of Pope Joan endures, troublesome, outrageous and deliciously resistant. I hope she’s watching.

photo credit: <a herf="">Stuck in Customs</a>via<aherf="">photopin</a><aherf="">cc<a/>

photo credit: <a
href="">Ferdinand Reus</a>
via< herf="">photopin</a><a


  1. I feel like the church is out of control. People are playing chuch, everyone has a word and wants to tell you how to luve but are they living right.

  2. What an interesting story. I've never heard the purple cavity having throne that allows the ability to check one's sex out.

  3. I have more faith in this Pope than I have had in the past. He seems to not be afraid to what is morally right. He talks about very controversial issues and stands on his own 2 feet, not the Vatican. He speaks from a place of love, compassion and fairness with a secure sense of reality instead of previous Popes how dance around issues and hide from the truth.

  4. The new pope Francis, is truly a pope for the people, he is so humble, more than any before him as far as I know. If this pope Joan ever existed, then it is shame that the town people treated her that way. To me, the US is similar, but it is slowly changing, I believe one day there will be a woman president and she is going to bring about change in a big way!



  5. well that was very interesting and crazy but no understanding for the non sence. people need to stop with this crapt of wanna be G's for God gtf here with that. but very important information.

  6. Clarence Bryant, Jr.March 29, 2015 at 8:45 PM

    This reading was very interesting. I was most intrigued with the part of the reading about Pope Joan and the portion of the reading about the Purple Chair with the Male Determining Hole in it. WOW! What a secreted event of determining who next will be Pope. The Catholic Church has soooooo many secrets until its unreal. I realized some time ago that Ministers have a Code of Law if U will just like Police Officers. They are Sworn to Secrecy amongst each other! This reminds me of Fraternities and Sororities.

  7. I have never of Pope Joan, and to be honest I don't know what the big deal is. She wasn't to real so no one talk about her, and she and her child was stone to death on the spot. Where was this close and trusted companion? Sounds like a fairy tale to me.

  8. Interesting... women are good enough to bring life into this world, but aren't good enough to hold powerful positions? Nonsense.

  9. I have read this over and over and it doesn't make sense to me.

  10. A female Papacy, well that would be interesting. As a non-Catholic Protestant, it doesnt really mattter to me. My opinion is this: "The Catholic church must evolve and learn to accept women in roles other than nuns."

  11. The reading was very interesting, just spoke with my ex-boyfriend days ago about Pope Francis, being that I'm not Catholic (I don't want to sound rude or anything) I don't really care; however, I did enjoy the reading. When there is a high the level of secrecy, it has me wondering.

  12. During the 9th Century, a woman was a Pope was interesting. If it is, true what a terrible thing to stone her and her baby. Having visited Ghana West Africa and the slave dungeons known as the slave castle located at the base of the Catholic Church. The use of the purple chair was completely new information.

    1. That was hard believe the Pope had to have his penis and testicle examined. Dhart

  13. That's sad that the woman pope and newborn were stoned to death on spot just because she stepped out of her "woman bounds"

  14. wow the stoning of the woman and her baby was shocking to read

  15. this is very interesting I never knew that they actually had to make sure that the pope is a man by feeling him up. to me thus shows that some churches and religions do not accept the importance of women.

  16. this was very interesting I have never heard of such thing....=/ just amazed---speechless

  17. I was unfamiliar with the story of Pope Joan, but maybe if there were a female Pope there would have been less molestation on the little boys.