Pope John VIII
aka Pope Joan, Pope JoannaThe Roman Catholic Church has this official position on the subject of women as priests:
"The female sex is in some respects inferior to the male sex, both as regards body and soul. ... If the two sexes are designed by nature for a homogeneous organic co-operation, then the leading position or a social pre-eminence must necessarily fall to one of them. Man is called by the Creator to this position of leader, as is shown by his entire bodily and intellectual make-up."
In other words, "We've got the penises, so fuck you."
But it wasn't always like that. In the early days of the church, there were women priests and bishops. Those women have been retroactively declared heretics, but the Inquisition prefers simply not to talk about Pope John VIII, also known as Pope Joan (or less frequently as Joanna).
Holy Victor/Victoria, Batman! There is a reasonable body of evidence to suggest that John was Joan, or at least as much credible evidence as there is to support other historical myths like the crucifixion of Jesus Christ or the construction of Alexandria.
You have to keep in mind that history, as with all forms of consensus reality, isn't a rock-solid and unchangeable edifice. It's more like an impressionist reproduction of a cubist painting—all you can do is squint and then take your best stab at it.
So take a good look at this portrait of Pope John VIII, squint, and figure out whether he looks like a she to you. Proceed to tell everyone your version of the story, and be damned anyone who disagrees!
What little we know for sure indicates that John VIII was a controversial pope, but this isn't exactly a point of great distinction in the ninth century church, when intramural political battles were the rule of the day.
His/her greatest enemy was some schmuck cardinal named Formosus. Formosus was excommunicated by John/Joan, recommunicated after his/her death, subsequently elected pope himself, died, then was re-excommunicated, his grave desecrated and his papacy revoked posthumously, all of which was subsequently reversed a couple of decades later. However, this is not Formosus' story.
The official Catholic Church account of John/Joan's regime states that "All modern historians are agreed that John was one of the greatest of the great popes who sat on the chair of Peter during the ninth century. Some, however, on what would seem to be insufficient grounds, regard him as cruel, passionate, worldly-minded, and inconstant."
John/Joan took on the inbred Roman politicos of the day, an especially corrupt bunch who made his/her life and papacy very difficult.
Perhaps the story of this gender confusion originated with one of these enemies, but at any rate, the legend states that one day around 855 A.D. a funny thing happened on the way to St. Peter's basilica: Pope John had to stop alongside the road in order to deliver a baby—his/her own as it happened.
Various legends lay out the possible fate of Joan/John after this not-so-blessed event. Some say Joan-not-John was stoned to death for the supposed sin of being pope in drag, or more accurately for being pope in drag while also fucking the help. (Although it was pretty common for the male popes of the Dark Ages to be randy little bastards, they did enjoy the plausible deniability that comes with being a male in the days before DNA testing.) Others claim Joan was exiled or sent to a nunnery.
The official Vatican story is that John-not-Joan was murdered by a political enemy and family member who hammered him to death, with no particular issue of gender arising during this process.
From these historical scraps, things go the usual murky route from legend to fact to distortion to just plain confusion. It appears that the church gave a wink and a nod to the story of Pope Joan for a couple of centuries before disavowing it.
There are references in medieval Vatican manuscripts to a statue of the female pope with her child, and various legends are tied to the story, albeit not very convincingly.
One of the most entertaining of these claims that Papal Thrones were outfitted with a hole in the seat so that cardinals could conveniently spot-check the gender of the pontiff. This seems needlessly elaborate, when a simple pantsing would do the trick, but it is rather amusing to contemplate. Eventually, the Church did disavow the whole Joan story, as they do to this day.
Some claim that Joan was the archetypical model for the High Priestess card in the Tarot, but most of these date the influence to the 14th century, which was a few centuries before the Tarot is documented to have existed.
In the 20th century, Pope Joan became a heroine to the feminist movement, inspiring people everywhere to... well, OK, she didn't really inspire much in the way of specific aspirations, since the Vatican still won't let a woman become a priest, much less pope.
One thing she did inspire was a movie, 1972's Pope Joan, a whopping two-hour plus epic starring Liv Ullman as the Lady Pope. (The film is directed by Michael Anderson, who would go on to such cinematic milestones as Logan's Run and Orca).
The movie features Ullman as a "me generation" hipster chick who is hypnotized to recall her past life as Pope Joan, which involved a lot of priestly and monastic rape followed by consensual priestly and monastic sex, leading to the fabled birth scene and obligatory stoning.
So there you can clearly see that all sorts of iniquity ensues when you try to deny the superiority of the male "entire bodily and intellectual make-up." Aren't you glad the church has remained untainted by womanfolk ever since?