IT IS A CURIOUS FACT that ecclesiastical history is probably the last academic discipline in which the term ‘primitive’ is one of approbation. This fact affords the rest of us the entertaining spectacle of Christian neophiliacs (like the advocates of female priesthood and homosexual marriage) sifting laboriously through the doubtful records of dark and, for the most part, illiterate ages, for the faintest glimmer of precedent.

And of course, they find it; which is their tragedy. For humour is unkind and, after the man who slips on a banana skin, there is nothing so funny as the man who clutches at straws.

The Same-Sex Nuptialists have John Boswell as their icon – the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale – who wrote ‘The Marriage of Likeness: Same Sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe’ [Harper Collins, 1995] just before his death, and that of two thirds of the book’s dedicatees, of Aids. The heroine of the Women Priests Lobby is Joan Morris, whose ‘Against Nature and God: The History of Women with Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops’ [Mowbray, 1974] was seminal and set any number of hares running.

To Morris, it seems, we owe an entire pro-feminist industry in early Christian archeology. In one short chapter [pp. 4-8] she vouchsafes every piece of such evidence which has ever been adduced in the works of Professor Thomas Torrance, Archbishop Henry McAdoo and Sister Lavinia Byrne, and anticipates, in a few lapidary quotations, the entire career of Signor Giorgio Otranto. It would be a triumph; if it amounted to much.

Now the research which Morris was doing at the time of her death (on Pope Joan, the ellusive obsession of prurient monastic chroniclers and anti-papal agitators) has spawned a book by Peter Stanford, a former editor of the Catholic Herald. ‘She-Pope: A Quest for the truth behind the Mystery of Pope Joan’ [Heineman, 1998] is an entertaining romp with many of the stylistic features of a travelogue. Mercifully it does not take itself too seriously, but nevertheless makes some very serious claims. It is Stanford’s achievement to have epitomised in a few sentences the muddled thinking and logical inconsequences which underlie the whole Morris-Boswell enterprise. He writes:

“A fantastic legend indeed. This had certainly not been on the curriculum of my Christian Brothers’ school. I was taught that Nicholas Breakspear as Hadrian IV was the only English Pope. A woman pope in an organisation that prides itself, in its clerical reaches at least, on being an all-male club would be a sensation with profound implications for the ongoing debate on women priests. The Catholic church’s objection to female ordination is based not on scripture but on tradition. There never have been women priests so there never can be. That argument might be difficult to sustain if once a woman had sat on Saint Peter’s throne.”

“What is more, one of Catholicism’s proudest boasts concerning the papacy – that there is an apostolic succession down from Christ to Saint Peter and thence on to his successors, all of them by this token divinely ordained – would be subject to some revision if a woman had been part of that unbroken line. For even if Joan fooled the men around her, she could not have tricked God. He would have known her real identity and gender. Did God want a female pope? And if he did, where does that leave the current Catholic ban on women at the altar?”

Stanford, it is clear, is of the Post-modernist or Tablet Tendency in Roman Catholicism – one which has wittily redefined the doctrine of Papal infallibility as the doctrine of the infallibility of the next Pope. He is hectically in search of historical justification for the mad dash into futurity. And it has to be said that his grasp of doctrine, past or present, is on the paler side of vague. But since he was once the editor of English Catholicism’s nearest equivalent to a broadsheet newspaper, it is more than probable that numbers of educated Roman Catholics share his views and his errors. So it is worth paying them some attention, before even examining his claims about a female Pope, which in any case are logically dependent on them.

‘The Catholic church’s objection to female ordination is based not on scripture but on tradition’, says Stanford. Now hardly! Though it is true that the Papal Biblical Commission advised that the scriptures were ‘inconclusive’ on the subject, it did not imply that their evidence was negligible or could be disregarded.

The plain fact is that where the scriptures are deemed by contemporary scholarship to be inconclusive the Roman Church follows, and has always followed the simple practice of interpreting them in the manner in which they were interpreted in the Apostolic age and the early Church. Now the prohibitions of female ordinations in the period of the great councils invariably appeal for support to the plain words of scripture. When the present Pope gave it as his opinion that the Church has no authority to change its invariable practice of ordaining only men he did not ignore scripture, but gave it due weight in the development of a tradition which is grounded in the scriptures and springs from them. Stanford, it seems wants to isolate scripture from tradition in order to undermine the tradition by citing exceptions to it. But such knock-down arguments are not available to him, and the very desire for them betrays, on his part, a culpable theological levity.

Stanford goes on: ‘…one of Catholicism’s proudest boasts…that there is an apostolic successsion…would be subject to some revision if a woman had been part of that unbroken line’, he writes – thereby uncovering yet more deficiencies in the RE curriculum of the Christian Brothers.

It would, after all, be hard to pen a more comprehensive misunderstanding of the doctrine of apostolic succession, which is not the sole possession of the Roman Church; does not exclusively, or even primarily (thank God!) involve a clear and uninterrupted line of succession in the papacy; and so could not possibly be disrupted or rendered inoperative by the sacrilegious imposture of a woman in drag (however well attested). Again Stanford is trying to redefine dogma in order to render it vulnerable to the very blunt instrument of his own historical imagination.

All this, of course, is not to say that ‘She-Pope’ is anything other than an entertaining read. In a style reminiscent of his mentor Georgina Masson (whose Companion Guide to Rome inspired this, as many another historical reverie of a Roman summer) Stanford takes us through musty libraries and narrow alleyways on a search where the reader comes to share, if only for a moment, his willing suspension of disbelief.

But as for Pope Joan, she remains where she always was: the dazzling subject of Emmanuel Rhoidis’s little masterpiece (translated by Lawrence Durrell) [Derek Verschoyle, 1954], which Stanford rather bitchily dismisses as a ‘souffle’. Like the God of the Enlightenment, she did not exist – and so it was necessary to invent her.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.