The Devil's Advocate

I'm sure you've all heard the term, the Devil's Advocate several times before. But did you know it came from the Catholic Church?

In 1587, Pope Sixtus V established the position of advocatus diaboli, Latin for “devil’s advocate.” This church official’s job was to question a candidate’s saintliness by pointing out their flaws and critically evaluating their miracles.

The Devil’s Advocate was to make sure a decision was not made hastily and that all the claims about a person were true and could not be discounted. In fact, the position actually required the individual to seek out and find objections to why the individual should be a saint. Plus, they had the power similar to that of the United States Presidential veto power. They could ‘veto’ or cancel the beatification or canonization of a potential saint and that would end the cause.

According to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, his role was to ‘prevent any rash decisions concerning miracles or virtues of the candidates for the honours of the altar. All documents of beatification and canonization processes must be submitted to his examination, and the difficulties and doubts he raises over the virtues and miracles are laid before the congregation and must be satisfactorily answered before any further steps can be taken in the processes.”

In other words, he was to go out and find weaknesses and negatives about the saint candidate and then he would bring his objections as to why the person should not be canonized or beautified. Then, every objection he brought up was to be answered to his satisfaction. If he was not given a satisfactory answer, he could stop the process of canonization or beatification of the candidate.

It is widely believed that Pope St. John Paul II eliminated this position in 1983, however, he did not. Instead, he reformed it.

Pope John II said there would be one “Promoter of the Faith or Prelate Theologian”. That’s simply the new title and wording of what had become known as the “Devil’s Advocate.”

Rather than having the responsibility of going out and looking for something bad about the candidate, having the power to ‘veto’ the canonization or beatification, and offering various objections to a beatification and canonization, he has a new role….that only includes three things.

He is to preside over the meeting of the theologians with the right to vote, to prepare the report on the meeting itself, and then to be present as an expert at the meeting of the Cardinals and Bishops.

But, during the meeting of Cardinals and Bishops he would only be an expert to answer questions, he does not have the ability to vote at that meeting. He only maintains the right to vote when he presides over the meeting of the theologians.

His authority to ‘veto’, or cancel, a cause is gone. He does not provide a list of objections and complaints, he provides a report of what his findings are but that report does not mandate there be a satisfactory answer to each objection.

Thanks to Pope John Paul II, the process of canonization was transformed from a type of trial by fire form of scrutinization to a committee or business type meeting.

So next time you hear the term "devil's advocate" you will know where it came from! 🙂




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