The term Devil’s Advocate is popularly used to describe any individual who is added to a conversation for the sake of argument. But did you know that this phrase had an interesting origin story?
The title “devil’s advocate” was given in the Catholic Church. The Devil’s Advocate’s job was to argue against any candidate’s canonization.
The Conception of the Phrase “Devil’s Advocate”
The original meaning of the term Devil’s advocate is very similar to its modern sense. Nowadays, it refers to someone who argues in favor of a proposition they do not necessarily agree with or believe, usually for the sake of debate.
Devil’s advocate was a real job within the administration of the Roman Catholic Church centuries ago. When the Church considered making someone a saint, the Devil’s advocate, also known as the advocatus diaboli or the Promotere Fidei which is Latin for promoter of the faith, would argue against the nomination.
The Devil’s supporters did so by scrutinizing evidence of the candidate’s miracles. They also cross-examined witnesses and scrutinized the candidate’s character. The Devil’s supporters were pitted against God’s supporters, also known as an advocatus Dei, or Promoter of the Cause. Like lawyers in a secular court, these magistrates used their oratory skills to persuade the jury to preside over the candidate’s sainthood.
The Church was decentralized in the early years of Catholicism, and bishops and other mid-level figures had the authority to canonize saints on a local level. This changed in the 12th century when the Pope was given complete authority to declare saints, and the canonization process was formalized. (Source: Did You Know Facts)
The History of the Devil’s Advocate
The history of the Devil’s advocate can be traced back to the formation of the Congregatio Sacrorum Rituum, a special commission created by pope Sixtus V in 1588 to investigate people who were believed to have performed miracles in their lifetime and, as such, qualified for sainthood.
The Congregatio, and thus the position of Devil’s advocate, was established for a variety of reasons. Parigi said Europe in 1588 lacked the many taken-for-granted beliefs that characterized the preceding centuries. The Church’s authority, which had previously been unquestioned, was now being challenged on multiple fronts.
The Devil’s advocate, according to Parigi, played a minor but critical role in a larger effort to regulate the canonization process. Such regulations would not only allow silent Protestants who were skeptical of the Vatican’s integrity. Still, they would also prevent local mystics from gaining autonomous followings threatening the Catholic Church’s unity.
Although the term Devil’s Advocate” became popular after 1588, the job itself predates the Congregatio by several centuries. As the scholar Leonardas V. Gerulaitis suggests in his article The Canonization of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Devil’s advocate used to be assigned to a group of commissioners, while God’s advocate was assigned to a proctor.
Commissioners were on the lookout for inconsistencies between testimonies. All hearings and interrogations were recorded and presented to a committee of bishops, priests, and cardinals, who advised the pope. Though there was usually only one proctor, there were multiple commissioners; the Devil’s advocate profession made the canonization process even more accessible. (Source: Did You Know Facts)
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