Saturday, January 20, 2007

Pope Joan Movie??

Yes, my friends, it's coming in 2008. says this:
There has never been any real evidence of a woman pope, but that hasn't stopped some folks from insisting it must have happened. Now a film is in the works, based on the novel Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross. It may make for a great movie, especially if you pay no attention to historical errors and misrepresentations (which, in my view, is the only way to watch most historical films).
Apparently the failure of The DaVinci Code isn't enough to stop the anti-Catholic movie machine from churning out more... I'm not sure it surprises me, since the story of the mythical Joan makes for quite a tale of cover-up and conspiracy, and with a woman in the center of it all -- it must be true! But "It's only a movie!", other people will say.

I remember when I was a student at the university, I went into the sacristy of our university parish to prepare for mass that day (as a liturgical minister) only to come upon a copy of Cross' Pope Joan, just laying around. I don't know who put it there. One of the lectors said to me, "It's a pretty good book; a little on the heretical side, but really good!"

I think one of the best accounts of the story of Joan is handed down to us by the infamous Giovanni Boccaccio (of Decameron fame) from his Renaissance work, Famous Women, written in Latin. Boccaccio asserts that Joan was an Englishwoman, but I think Cross asserts she was German (at least in the movie). Boccaccio says many things about the story in his book, but I thought that this excerpt was most interesting (in both Latin and English)
Iohannes, esto vir nomine videatur, sexu tamen femina fuit... Que tamen non verita ascendere Piscatoris cathedram et sacra ministeria omnia, nulli mulierum a christiana religione concessum, tractare agere et aliis exhibere, apostolatus culmen aliquibus annis obtinuit Christique vicariatum femina gessit in terris. Sane ex alto Deus, plebi sue misertus, tam insignem locum teneri, tanto presideri populo tanque infausto errore decipi a femina passus non est et illam indebita audentem nec sinentem suis in manibus liquit.
Roughly translated (from Virginia Brown's translation),
From her name John would seem to be a man, but she was nevertheless a woman... She was not afraid to mount the Fisherman's throne, to perform all the sacred offices, and to administer them to others, something that the Christian religion does not permit any woman to do. For a few years she occupied the highest apostolate and a woman acted as Vicar of Christ on earth. Then from on high God took pity on his people. He did not suffer a woman to hold so eminent an office, govern so great a people, and deceive them with so inauspicious a misapprehension. He abandoned to her own devices [hands] this person who boldly persisted in doing what should not have been done.
Notice the point of view from which Boccaccio writes this. He writes it almost as though it were a biblical story, using biblical imagery to convey the wittiness of evil, the foolishness of man, and the justice of God. Virginia Brown's translation of the Latin doesn't emphasize this as much, but what I found interesting is right where he begins to describe the action God took. He starts by saying, in Latin,
Sane ex alto Deus... passus non est...
(Sensibly, God, from on high, did not suffer [allow]...)
In Boccaccio's account, Joan duped the Church and fooled the people, and it was God who essentially struck her down (God, ex alto, no less!). Later on, when He describes Joan becoming pregnant, Boccaccio exclaims,
O scelus indignum, o invicta patientia Dei!
(O shameful crime, o how invincible is God's patience!).
And after she gives birth in public, Boccaccio writes, using more biblical imagery,
Et hinc a patribus in tenebras exteriores abiecta, cum fetu misella abiit.
(And hence, she was cast into the outer darkness by the fathers, and the wretched woman went away with her child).
And how does Donna Woolfolk Cross write the tale? Is Joan turned into some sort of feminist heroine of her day, following her true vocation from God, all the while persecuted by an evil institution?

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