Donna Woolfolk Cross’ novel ‘Pope Joan’

Similar to its take on the controversial “Da Vinci Code,” ABC News “Primetime” gives credence to the claim that a woman disguised as a man served as pope in medieval Rome.

Titled “On the Trail of Pope Joan,” an ABC promo says, “Diane Sawyer takes you on the trail of a passionate mystery. Just as intriguing as ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ Chasing down centuries-old clues hidden even inside the Vatican. Could a woman disguised as a man have been pope? Thursday night. One astonishing Primetime.”

But the media-watchdog weblog Newsbusters points to research by scholars hundreds of years ago that debunked the claim and cites recent books that have repudiated it further.

Catholic Church records have no indication of a pope by any of the names ascribed to her, and there are no gaps in the history. Another problem, scholars say, is there was no mention of such a pope in any historical account until the 13th century, about 400 years after her presumed reign.

In the book “The Myth of Pope Joan,” first published in 1988, French author Alain Boureau traces the origin of the story of a woman named Joan who disguised herself to enter the male preserve of Catholic scholarship, rose to the papacy and then died giving birth two years later.

Boreau points out the church itself subscribed to the story until the 16th century, when Rome distanced itself from “Joan” after Protestant reformers used it to discredit the Catholic Church.

In 1996, however, New York writer Donna Woolfolk Cross’s historical novel “Pope Joan” was released and a movie based on the book currently is in production.

The book, which became a best-seller in Germany, suggests the church engaged in a 400-year cover-up that prevented Joan from becoming one of history’s most famous women.

But Catholic writer Philip Jenkins, in his book “The New Anti-Catholicism, calls the “Pope Joan legend” a “venerable staple of the anti-Catholic mythology.”

“Though it has not the slightest foundation,” he writes, “from the sixteenth century through the nineteenth, the tale was beloved by Protestants, since it testified to Catholic stupidity. …” Today, he says, “Pope Joan enjoys a lively presence on the Web, where feminist anti-Catholics celebrate her existence much as did seventeenth-century Calvinists.”

The posting on the Newsbusters site said: “That a major network like ABC would lend credibility to such a vicious anti-Catholic smear is deplorable.”

As WorldNetDaily reported in 2003, ABC News broadcast a special, based partly on the novel “The Da Vinci Code,” which examined whether Jesus married Mary Magdalene.

Reporter Elizabeth Vargas, now a co-anchor for “ABC World News Tonight,” said the show was being put together “as respectfully as we can,” but it drew criticism from religious leaders, including Joseph De Feo of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

De Feo noted most of the people interviewed in the program believe the theory either is plausible or are convinced it’s true.

“The facts themselves scream out that this is a crackpot theory,” De Feo said.

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