Devil's advocate

Devil’s advocate was originally the church official appointed to argue against a candidate for sainthood

The term devil’s advocate was originally the church official appointed to argue against a candidate for sainthood

In common parlance, a devil’s advocate is someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position they do not necessarily agree with (or simply an alternative position from the accepted norm), for the sake of debate or to explore the thought further. In taking this position, the individual taking on the devil’s advocate role seeks to engage others in an argumentative discussion process. The purpose of such a process is typically to test the quality of the original argument and identify weaknesses in its structure, and to use such information to either improve or abandon the original, opposing position. It can also refer to someone who takes a stance that is seen as unpopular or unconventional, but is actually another way of arguing a much more conventional stance. The background of this word comes from an official position within the Catholic Church, in which a canon lawyer called the Devil’s Advocate, also known as the Promoter of Faith, “argued against the canonization (sainthood) of a candidate in order to uncover any character flaws or misrepresentation evidence favoring canonization.

Origin and history

During the canonization process employed by the Roman Catholic Church, the Promoter of the Faith (Latin: promotor fidei), popularly known as the Devil’s advocate (Latin: advocatus diaboli), was a canon lawyer appointed by Church authorities to argue against the canonization of a candidate. It was this person’s job to take a skeptical view of the candidate’s character, to look for holes in the evidence, to argue that any miracles attributed to the candidate were fraudulent, and so on. The Devil’s advocate opposed God’s advocate (Latin: advocatus Dei; also known as the Promoter of the Cause), whose task was to make the argument in favor of canonization. This task is now performed by the Promoter of Justice (promotor iustitiae), who is in charge of examining the accuracy of the inquiry on the saintliness of the candidate.

The office was established in 1587 during the reign of Pope Sixtus V. Pope John Paul II reduced the power and changed the role of the office in 1983. This reform changed the canonization process considerably, helping John Paul II to usher in an unprecedented number of elevations: nearly 500 individuals were canonized and over 1,300 were beatified during his tenure as Pope as compared to only 98 canonizations by all his 20th-century predecessors. In cases of controversy the Vatican may still seek to informally solicit the testimony of critics of a candidate for canonization. Aroup Chatterjee, the author of the book Mother Teresa: The Final Verdict, testified against the late nun as a so-called devil’s advocate. The British-American columnist Christopher Hitchens was famously asked to testify against the beatification of Mother Teresa in 2002, a role he would later describe as being akin to “representing the Devil, as it were, pro bono”.