Pope Joan and the Black Swan: Medieval Christianity as a Resource for Gender Justice in the Church

pope joanPope Joan and the Black Swan: Medieval Christianity as a Resource for Gender Justice in the Church

By Ulrike Wiethaus

Seeking Justice: The Journey of John C. Raines, eds. Miguel A. De La Torre and Edwin D. Aponte (Philadelphia: Temple University Religion Department, 2013)

Introduction: During my graduate studies in the Department of Religion at Temple University in the early eighties, the second feminist wave was in full force—exhilarating, energizing, and, as was gradually discovered, also laced with plenty of blind spots. From coast to coast, U.S. activists worked to undue a gendered system of interlocking habits of economic, legal, and social discrimination derived from European practices and ideologies. In an act of male solidarity, John C. Raines and Daniel C. Maguire convened an international group of male colleagues to critically assess gender injustice in world religions. The title of the ensuing collection of essays still rings activist and urgent today: What Men Owe to Women.

In his introduction to the volume, John C. Raines summarized the group’s main findings about gender oppression. One, that world religions mirror social constructions of gender and vice versa; two, that the analysis of religious power is always a choice of political allegiance; three, that culturally specific and culturally competent academic work is needed in order to be persuasive; and four, that gender justice activism in religious domains demands multiple culturally appropriate tools and tactics. The contributors posited that all world religions carry their own seeds of positive change within. In John C. Raines’ words, “each of these religious traditions has a strong theory of social justice, and these resources can be harnessed to contemporary issues of gender. We ask, how can our Scriptures, how can our founding Prophets, how can our ancestors be used today to further justice in relations between genders?”

This essay offers resources from within medieval European Christianity in a feminist reading of the Christian dogma of hypostatic union, medieval political theory on royal twinning, and two medieval legends on the numinous double. Pulling these strands together as a feminist hermeneutics of double lives, I argue that the popular medieval story of a ninth century female Pope and the myth of a Fairy Lover have served to unhinge egemonic claims of male Christian superiority in the Middle Ages and in contemporary film today. As acts of subversive story telling or truth to be believed, the stories reconnoiter the possibility of a woman’s benevolent reign in the highest ecclesiastical office, and think up ingenious ways beyond institutional networks through which women might gain access to male dominated higher learning and a liberating sexuality. Safely positioned in part or in whole in the dreamlike realm of the numinous and supernatural, the narratives invite their audience to undo false consciousness. They insist that women deserve better and deserve more than what a misogynist status quo has to offer.

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