Devil’s Advocate Was A Real Job Within The Catholic Church

The original meaning of the term “devil’s advocate” strongly resembles its contemporary meaning. Today it refers to someone who argues in favor of a proposition that they do not necessarily agree with or believe in, usually for the sake of debate.

Centuries ago, devil’s advocate was a real job within the administration of the Roman Catholic Church. Whenever the Church considered declaring someone a saint, the devil’s advocate – also known as advocatus diaboli or the Promotere Fidei (Latin for “promoter of faith”) – would argue against the candidate’s nomination.

Devil’s advocates did this by examining evidence of miracles linked to the candidate. They also cross-examined witnesses and researched the candidate’s character flaws. Devil’s advocates were contrasted with God’s advocate, also known as advocatus Dei, or promoter of the cause. Like lawyers in a secular court, these magistrates use their oratory skills to try to convince the presiding jury of the candidate’s sanctity.

The Origins of Devil’s Advocate

As the scholar Paolo Parigi explains in his book, The rationalization of miraclesthe story of Devil’s Advocate dates back to the formation of the Congregatio Sacrorum Rituum, a special commission created by Pope Sixtus V in 1588 to investigate those suspected of performing miracles during their life and, as such, qualified for holiness.

The Congregatio — and, by extension, the office of devil’s advocate — was created for several reasons. Europe in 1588, Parigi explains, was “an environment devoid of the many taken-for-granted beliefs that characterized earlier centuries.” The authority of the Church, once unchallenged, is now challenged on several fronts.

Pope Sixtus V established the office of Devil’s Advocate in the late 1500s. (Credit: Vatican City / Wikipedia)

According to Parigi, the devil’s advocate played a small but crucial role in a larger effort to regulate the canonization process. Such regulations would not only silence Protestants who were skeptical of the integrity of the Vatican, but would also prevent local mystics from acquiring self-supporting supporters who could break the unity of the Catholic Church itself.

Canonization before Sixtus V

Although the term devil’s advocate did not become common until after 1588, the work itself predates the Congregatio by centuries. As the scholar Leonardas V. Gerulaitis suggests in his article, The canonization of Saint Thomas Aquinasthe responsibilities of devil’s advocate fell to a group of commissioners while those of God’s advocate fell to an overseer.

During canonization in the 14th century, the overseer gathered witnesses who could attest to miracles related to the candidate. After these witnesses shared their testimonies, they were questioned by the commissioners. According to a senior source cited by Gerulaitis, they were asked to give the exact dates and locations of the miracles, among other things.

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The commissioners kept their eyes open for discrepancies between the testimonies. All hearings and interrogations were documented and presented to a committee made up of bishops, priests and cardinals who, in turn, advised the pope. Although there was usually one overseer, there were multiple commissioners; the profession of devil’s advocate further simplified the process of canonization.

Set supernatural boundaries

Each case provided Devil’s Advocate with unique challenges. Sometimes the testimonies of miracles conflicted with each other. At other times, the only witnesses to a miracle were women or children, neither of whom were considered reliable in the eyes of Church administrators at the time. In these cases, it was up to the devil’s advocate to give them credibility.

As mentioned, devil’s advocates played only a small role in the Church’s attempt to formalize the canonization process. Despite this, the profession had major religious implications. As Parigi puts it, the devil’s advocate’s job was to “define the boundaries of the supernatural” by determining what could and could not be considered a true miracle.

“The task of the devil’s advocate”, continues Parigi, “was not to deny the existence of miracles but to create space for false miracles – that is, for the occurrence of events or facts which, though inexplicable by science or medicine, were nevertheless not true miracles.This legitimized the claim of the Church to be the guardian of the supernatural.

Devil’s Advocate Diminished

Devil’s Advocate was part of the Roman Catholic Church for over 400 years, until John Paul II drastically reduced the powers of the profession in 1983. Why did he do this? Nobody knows for sure. What we do know is that this action dramatically increased the speed at which the canonization process takes place and gave the pope figure greater control.

Although the profession no longer exists today as it once did, the Vatican still occasionally solicits testimonials from critics when considering new candidates. This happened in 2003, when atheist author Christopher Hitchens was interviewed during the canonization of Mother Teresa. Hitchens’ reviews, later published by Slate magazinespecifically targeted Mother Teresa, as well as the Catholic Church in general.

Mother Theresa
Hitchens opposed the beatification of Mother Teresa. (Credit: shankar kumar sanyal / Wikipedia)

Like a true devil’s advocate, Hitchens questioned the authenticity of Mother Teresa’s miracles. When the Church defended a Bengali woman who claimed a beam of light emerging from Teresa’s photo had cured her tumor, Hitchens called the woman’s doctor, who said her cancer was a tuberculous cyst that had disappeared through prescription drugs. Hitchens also criticized Teresa’s opposition to female empowerment, birth control, and planned parenthood.

Validation of Saints

Hitchens was also angry with the pope, who in his view had diminished the importance of devil’s advocate to make the canonization process faster and less rigorous. When Mother Teresa was declared a saint, she had only been dead for a year. Previously, candidates had to be dead for at least five years before they could claim sainthood.

At first glance, this may seem like a trivial bureaucratic rule. However, Hitchens argues that this rule was put in place for a reason. Without devil’s advocates to oppose him, Jean-Paul “created more instant saints than all of his predecessors combined”. In doing so, the Vatican officially surrendered “to the forces of showbiz, superstition and populism”.

While the profession of devil’s advocate is now gone, its legacy lives on – ironically – in science. Inspired by centuries-old custom, the philosopher of science Karl Popper believed that it was better to argue against something even if you were in fact for it, because it would eliminate your bias and strengthen the integrity of your results: the same reasoning that led to the creation of the Congregatio.

About Jessica J. Bass

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