From Pope Joan to … Anne

Quel lien entre la figure légendaire de la papesse Jeanne et la théologienne Anne Soupa, qui a fait acte de candidature au siège épiscopal de Lyon ?

What is the link between the legendary figure of Pope Joan and the theologian Anne Soupa, who applied for the Episcopal See in Lyon? No. If only once again – certainly, in a less romantic way – the question of the place of women in the Roman Catholic Church is raised. 

A few weeks ago, Anne Soupa, a recognized theologian, applied for the Episcopal office in Lyon. Since then and in France alone, more than fifteen thousand people have supported its initiative. The courage of this act is only one of the possible responses to the permanent scandal of the place of women in the Catholic Church, they who constitute the vast majority of the lifeblood of the communities. The denunciation of such a scandal once again underlines the age-old resistance of male clericalism and its desire to save at all costs an omniscient power at the expense of the service and pastoral needs of the baptized while the model of the priesthood, versusTridentine, is out of breath in a very large part of Roman Christendom. The personal and media gesture of Anne (Soupa) easily refers the historian to the legendary papess Jeanne who would not have been satisfied with a cathedron but would have squarely occupied the pontifical throne (1) .

La papesse Jeanne (illumination, 1450), Ms. 033, f. 69v, Spencer Collection, New York

Without knowing how and why this legend was born, perhaps at the end of the 10th century, it was around 1255 that Jean de Mailly clearly mentioned it in his Universal Chronicle. Of German origin, Jeanne is said to have studied and traveled across Europe. Disguised as a man, she would have become a notary at the pontifical court, then a cardinal, elected pope in 855 before giving birth publicly in 858 and perhaps dying as a result of her childbirth; unless it has been stoned or simply laid down. This amazing story would not have lived until the 16th century if the faithful themselves had not believed in it, sometimes slyly diverting the meaning of symbols. For example, the presence of two curule seats during the election of the pope, mark of the collegiality of the curia, was transformed for one into a pierced chair which, since the usurpation of Joan, would have enabled a cleric to verify the presence of male attributes of each new pope. “Duets habet and bene pendentes”the auditor would have cheered in a very carnivalesque and joyfully anticlerical scene. Similarly, the detour undertaken by the procession during the pontifical coronation between the Lateran and the Colosseum was interpreted as avoiding the place where Jeanne had given birth to her child while she was on horseback.

For its part, the Church supported for a long time, especially through Dominican literature, but hollow the existence of Pope Joan. It allowed him to make this episode an exemplum, a sort of story with moral value by vilifying the cross-dressing. She also drew an argument from it during successive crises of the papacy, especially during the Great Schism of the end of the 14th century with the simultaneous presence of several popes. If unworthy candidates could therefore access the throne of Peter they could also be deposed. In turn, the Lutherans used this figure to denounce the excesses of the Roman institution and its discredit while Calvin for his part stressed that Joan had ended the apostolic succession. It was only then that Rome, aided by the scholarship of the Jesuits, proved at the end of the 16th century that Joan had never existed.

Far be it from me to use the figure of the Pope in my turn to support positive denunciation and above all the claim of Anne Soupa. His fight deserves much better than that even if History can be of some help to him in this field. It will be noted simply that since this announcement, it is radio silence on the side of the French episcopal conference which never reacts when a problem disturbs it. Only a few second knives have tried laboriously to explain that the ecclesial and hierarchical structure of the Church came from the will of God herself. Will that they know better than anyone, probably thanks to their ordination. It is therefore always and again the place of women in real positions of responsibility that is posed in the face of rules written by and for men. Even if still very timidly,

In fact from Anne to Jeanne, a personal pronoun was lost. This “I” which resonates in the nave and in the choir not only as a legitimate claim but as an imperative pastoral necessity and an urgent theological rereading.

Alain Cabantous

Source: DE JEANNE À… ANNE – Saint-Merry

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