The Zaniest Myths About the Pope

PHOTO: Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives on St Peter's square for his last weekly audience, Feb. 27, 2013 at the Vatican.
Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Even though the pope is one of the most closely watched and recognizable figures in the world, the papacy is an ancient institution shrouded in mystery.

All that history breeds legends, and all that secrecy leads to rumors. As a result, myths -- some modern, some centuries old -- have grown around the most powerful and enigmatic office in Christianity.

In no particular order, here are some of the most persistent myths about the pope.

Myth: The Pope Is Never Wrong

How can the pope never be wrong, when he's always wearing white after Labor Day? Good question. He's not actually infallible, at least not usually. The pope -- when he's just walking around the Vatican or watching "Jeopardy!" -- is entitled to make mistakes.

But there are times when a pope can speak with the authority of God. When that happens, Catholics believe, he cannot be wrong and whatever he says goes.

The idea of papal infallibility has been around for a long time, but was only codified in the 19th century. For a decree to be considered infallible, it must be on a matter of faith or morals, it must apply to the entire Church, and it must be presented as an immutable declaration. You can criticize the pope's fashion choices all you want, but to deny a declaration made ex cathedra, or from the official office of the pope, is the literal definition of "anathema."

Myth: There Was a Female Pope and Her Name Was Joan

No one denies there have been some shady dudes to hold the keys and wear the red shoes. Alexander VI had four kids with his mistress Vannozza Catanei. Sergeius III, a 10th-century pontiff, is believed to have been the only pope to order the death of another pope -- his predecessor, Leo V. Nicolas III was so corrupt that Dante placed him in his eighth circle of Hell.


The myth of Pope Joan has persisted since the 13th century. Joan was said to have disguised herself as a man, gotten elected pope, and was only exposed after giving birth to a baby while riding a horse. Really? The thing is, lots of people, including popes, seem to have believed the legend. Joan even appears in some medieval works of art, but there is no historic evidence to suggest Joan was real.

Myth: Newly Elected Popes Have Their Undercarriage Inspected on a Special Chair

So there's a rumor going around that immediately following a cardinal's election to pope, he strips down and sits on a bottomless chair, so that his genitals can be inspected to prove he's a man. The myth is related to that of Pope Joan, and is supposedly the Vatican's way of ensuring there are no more pregnant popes.

The chair even has a name, a Sedes Stercoraria. Believers point to wooden seats with holes cut out, found in the Vatican Museum and at the Louvre. But the chairs date back to the 12th century, long before the Joan legend even started, and were likely Roman toilets that made it to the Vatican.

Myth: The Pope is the Antichrist and His Title Equals 666

While many see the pope as one of the holiest and most pious men in the world, others are convinced he's actually the demonic beast mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Following the Protestant Reformation, some protestant churches began describing the pope as the Antichrist, a figure of pure evil.

Some modern protestant churches still associate the pope with the mark of the beast, or the number 666. They point to the numerological value of the Latin title Vicarivs Filii Dei, or Vicar of the Son of God, whose letters, when converted to Roman numerals and added up, equal 666. Aside from the fact that many names can be manipulated to come up with similar values, the title Vicarivs Filii Dei was never an official title for the pope.

Myth: St. Malachy Predicted Benedict XVI Would Be the Last Pope

Soon after Pope Benedict XVI announced his retirement earlier this month, the Internet began circulating a medieval prophecy that predicted that Benedict would be the last pope.

The prediction is based on a 15th century reading of the supposed writings of an 11th century Irish archbishop named Malachy -- basically a 1,000-year-old chain letter. The Church has called the prophecy a fiction for several hundred years.

Malachy was pretty good at knowing a lot about 15th century popes, who served around the time the prophecies were said to have been discovered, but he has been a lot more vague about things since then. The prophecy predicts that Rome will be destroyed and Judgment Day will come following the reign of the 112th pope.

Benedict was the 265th pope.

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