A new novel by author Maggie Hamand asks what would happen if an intersex Irish Catholic priest became pope–and pregnant.
In an essay for The Irish Times, Hamand writes that Virgin & Child, is “a novel that arose out of a thought experiment, which I wrapped up as a literary thriller.” Drawing inspiration from her frustration with the Catholic Church’s teaching on women’s reproductive rights, Hamand wondered what would transpire if a male priest “became mysteriously pregnant” and “desired to end it” out of fear of childbirth.
With a background in biochemistry, Hamand concluded that she could make the plot more realistic by making her protagonist, Pope Patrick, intersex. She remarks:
“I liked the idea that they could be intersex, since I had been a tomboy as a child and had felt frustrated with the gender roles in our society when I was growing up.”
Hamand’s frustration with Catholicism originally stemmed from her theological studies on Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (God is Love). Even though this publication “was praised by the Catholic Church,” she saw it as exclusive to many minorities, particularly women and LGBTQ folks. She commented that “this…. had nothing to say to anyone who doesn’t support the church’s position that only in a heterosexual marriage and when ‘open to procreation’ can sex be approved.” She calls the document “an epic fail” because it does not address the “moral and ethical” needs of a “postmodern” and “imperfect” world.
Hamand believes that “the language used by the Catholic Church around abortion, as well as on issues such as homosexuality and transgender, is dismissive and horrible.” As she brainstormed the book, she imagined:
“What could happen to shake these popes and cardinals in the Vatican, wrapped in their dogma, surrounded by medieval walls and completely divorced from the reality of people’s ordinary lives, desires and problems? How, in particular, could they ever understand a woman’s lived experience, what it is like to be unwantedly pregnant, or the lives of those who feel different?”
When doing research for the book, she came across the case of “a person with one ovary and one testis, who appeared to be male. And there had been 11 live births to such people.” Although this is not common, she decided that an intersex pregnant pope would be the most convincing story.
She decided to make the pope character Irish in light of “the enormous changes that have taken place in Irish society in the last few years, with the diminishing power of the church, tarnished by child abuse scandals, and the legalisation of abortion.” The story follows a young Catholic boy teased in Cork, Ireland, for being different, who faces many obstacles and, despite clergy pushback, eventually becomes pope. Hamand comments that her character’s struggle with faith “reflect[s]my own struggles with Christianity, something which as a scientist I had always found hard to believe, and yet which constantly tugged at my heart till I could no longer resist it.”
Though she knew the book would be controversial, she “tried to write the book with humanity, and respect.” Most importantly, she feels the book represents the modern divide in politics that the Church faces today. Her novel exposes this conflict “between those who want things to stay as they are and those who want to make the faith more relevant in the modern world.”
—Emily Win, April 25, 2020