Today, when someone talks about a devil’s advocate, they probably think of someone taking an alternative position from the norm, or one they don’t personally agree with, for the sake of the argument. Or, they think of the hit 1997 movie “The Devil’s Advocate” starring Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves. Most don’t know the real history of the phrase and how it had its beginnings in the Catholic Church. What really is the Devil’s Advocate?
For a potential candidate to be canonized as a saint within the Catholic Church, there is a rigorous formal canonization process. In this process, two parties take sides to argue for and against a candidate. Historically, the Promotor Fidei, Latin for Promoter of the Faith, was a canon lawyer appointed by the Holy See to argue against a candidate’s canonization. The popular nickname for the appointee was Advocatus Diaboli, Latin for Devil’s Advocate. This person would take a skeptical position of the person’s character, argue any miracles attributed to them were fraudulent, and look for gaps in evidence. The Devil’s Advocate opposed the Advocatus Dei, Latin for God’s Advocate, another canon lawyer who would argue in favor of canonization.
The earliest mention of anyone carrying out the task of arguing against a candidate is found in the canonization of Saint Lawrence Justinian, during the papacy of Pope Leo X. The Devil’s Advocate proper was formally established as an officer by Pope Sixtus V the year 1587 as part of the change to deal juridically with beatification and canonization.
Today, the role of the Devil’s Advocate is far diminished within the Church. Pope Saint John Paul II reduced the power and changed the responsibilities of the office in 1983. This change helped usher in 500 new saints and 1300 new beatifications. As a comparison, all of his 20th-century predecessors had only a total of 98 canonizations. However, they still may seek counsel in the event of a controversy, most recently Christopher Hitchens and Aroup Chatterjee who testified as the Devil’s Advocate in the case of the canonization of Mother Teresa.