Yes, it’s a strained pun; this is a mixed bag of Papal falsehoods.
Pope Joan, the Pope’s Fishing Fleet, and the Pope Speaks For God; originally Hitler’s Pope was going to be part of it, but that kind of grew too big.
There are a lot of variations, but the story goes like this. There was a woman who disguised herself as a man and eventually became Pope. Her true identity was then discovered and she was removed. The first version I heard of was really mutated, stating that there’s a chair containing a hole in the seat where the new Pope sits during his procession. Apparently, according to the conspiracy, Pope Joan was torn to bits by the mob when she gave birth while seated on that chair, and now all the Popes are…um…checked, while they’re sitting on the chair. If I remember correctly, there is such a chair, but it has a hole in it because it was originally a ‘facility’. The type of ‘facility’ you’d expect to have with a large hole in it. It was only used very recently and because the pope in question was exhausted.
As it so happens, Crisis Magazine already covered this one– and their coverage suggests a probable origin for the version I heard. ABC News did a special on it, well covered in the linked article; I’ll hit the high points here.
The earliest found mention of the legend is in a work attributed to a priest, which inserted her death-during-Papal-procession version right after Pope Victor III, almost 200 years earlier; it was repeated by other writers inside of the Church, first being moved to during the time of Pope Paschal II (somewhat understandable, there are three different anti-Popes listed during his time) and then Pope John X, and finally shifted to right after Saint Leo IV by a bishop and famous historian. Please let this be a lesson for you about trusting a source just because it is Catholic. There are a lot of non-malicious misinformation that came about because the best information they had was simply not as good as we could wish!
This story probably would’ve died out with other discredited mistakes. (Yes, I think it’s pretty obvious that believing it is at best like believing there was a third daughter of Henry VIII who became queen, because it was first mentioned in a book written during the American Revolution– except that it was a really handy weapon to discredit the Pope or Catholic Church.) Thank God for honest opponents, though, because at least one Calvinist historian went and looked with the new standards for history, and pointed out it was baseless. If you’re interested, the article is really good.
The Pope’s Fishing Fleet
You may or may not have heard this one: Catholics eat fish on Fridays because the Pope owned a fishing fleet and wanted to create a demand. We actually have a household joke about the “religious obligation to eat fish on Friday” and goldfish crackers. And given the present time of year, I’m guessing anybody reading this knows that there is no religious requirement to eat fish. We’re abstaining from carne, actually, but “meat” is the closest English word. We’re allowed to eat fish, but the reason we’re abstaining from carne is the same reason we pray the Sorrowful Mysteries on Fridays – mourning the death of Christ. It’s somewhere between fasting and giving up chocolate on the food-related self control scale. I don’t actually remember. But I suspect that Jimmy Akin’s post on Fish Fridays is partly why I started reading his articles regularly; the way he formats the answer, after pointing out that there’s zero evidence for the accusation, is incredibly appealing.
People eat fish on Fridays for the same reason they eat grilled cheese sandwiches or fried eggs – because most folks make a meal containing protein. Most of the proteins we eat normally are from warm-blooded land animals. At various times, the Lenten abstinence included milk products and eggs, too, which surely helped the tradition, and the many different fish allusions in our history. (For example the way the first Pope was a fisherman, before he became a fisher of men; or there’s the fish-symbol for Christians.) All of those, combined with the fact that fish frequently are regarded as survival food – poor people food, the stuff you didn’t eat unless you had to, and thus perfect for meditation on poverty – probably contributed to the misrepresentation of Fish on Friday. I think the obsession with “Fish on Friday” in the US is also related to what people were likely to be eating if they are anywhere with non-Catholics and didn’t want to appear different. I grew up with Lent usually meaning lots of “breakfast for dinner” meals, and when I’m traveling I just look for vegetarian options. However, Knights of Columbus Fish-Fry-Friday fundraisers are always very visible.
The Pope Speaks for God
Now this one is possibly one of the more twitch-inducing claims. Usually asserted from non-Catholic family and friends, this assertion is almost always tossed out into a discussion when people want to “get” you on something about your Catholic faith and thus are not in the mood for a reasonable discussion. Leaving aside the not-inconsiderable problem that usually what “the Pope said” has no connection to what he actually said, and in some recent cases was even made up from whole-cloth, it’s a major misunderstanding; even when they know enough to use the phrase “papal infallibility.” Short version is, ‘Papal Infallibility’ is a lot more complicated. Basically, it’s got to be formally invoked. In fact, it was confusing enough, folks, that the Vatican council had to formally explain it during Vatican I. From EWTN: When the Pope (1) intends to teach (2) by virtue of his supreme authority (3) on a matter of faith and morals (4) to the whole Church, he is preserved by the Holy Spirit from error.
Short of Papal Infallibility is his teaching authority. You know about this, it’s AKA ‘The Magisterium;’ that thing which makes us different from anyone else, because we have teachers, shepherds, following Christ’s instruction and promise. Don’t forget, while Peter was the first Pope, the other disciples were no slouches themselves. It took a while before we had the words and the formalized protections against abuse The Pope’s power is as the leader of the Bishops, rather than (as I have had some theologically iffy friends insist) as an incarnate God.
This aspect of the Pope’s infallibility is most powerful because it does have some truth in it – not only the Pope, but every priest can act in the person of Christ – to take an easy example, in the forgiveness of sins; the Priest is listening, and forgiving, by the power of Christ. (The universal vs ministerial priesthood makes me wish I could find a better way to say than “acting in the person of Christ,” but I’m just not that good, sorry.)
Thirdly, the Pope is very unlikely to be an idiot. Everybody is ignorant of some things, but chances are that if the Pope is talking about faith or morals, it’s best to listen to his argument. Manners also suggest that, even if he’s talking about, oh, let’s say the best way to make fish, you should listen politely. Even if he is totally wrong, being polite doesn’t cost. Even if he’s insisting that smoked fish with cheese is the way to go, and you’re well aware that your grandma’s fish tacos are far better.
None of this means that you’re required to agree with everything the Pope says. We have saints, at least one doctor of the Church, who are famous for publicly disagreeing with the Pope because he was wrong! There are “prudential” things — that’s things where you’re doing the best you can — and “binding” things — where you can’t disagree, and way below either are matters of personal preference.
This topic isn’t easy, so I’ll just point you over to DarwinCatholic’s article on the topic. God gave us reason. Let’s make sure we don’t insult the gift by refusing to use it.