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 of the evidence favoring canonization."
Origin and History
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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 how accurate is 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".
The Devil's Advocate plays an important role in opposing canonization for Leibowitz in the classic science fiction novel A Canticle for Leibowitz, written in 1960 by Walter M. Miller. Leibowitz, an engineer killed while trying to save written works being destroyed by the scattered and embittered survivors of a nuclear apocalypse, represents the human desire for knowledge that is ultimately self-destructive. The 2000 novel Angels & Demons by Dan Brown featured a depiction of a fictional "devil's advocate" who contributed negative information about each candidate for pope, though in reality the Devil's Advocate never had any role in the selection of a pope.
- Helterbran, Valeri R. (1 January 2008). Exploring Idioms (in English). Maupin House Publishing, Inc. p. 40. ISBN 9781934338148. "Devil's Advocate Definition: To take an opposing position for the sake of argument. Background: Devil's advocate is taken from a role formerly used in the canonization process in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1587, Pope Sixtus V established a process involving a canon attorney in the role of Promoter of the Faith or Devil's Advocate. This person argued against the canonization (sainthood) of a candidate in order to uncover any character flaws or misrepresentation of the evidence favoring canonization."
- Fanning, W. (1911). "Promotor Fidei". Catholic Encyclopedia 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 9 February 2014.
- "Papież Jan Paweł II". Polonica.info/. Retrieved 18 March 2010.[dead link]
- Hitchens, C. (February–March 2004). "Less than Miraculous". Free Inquiry 24 (2). (Subscription required.)
- Martin, R. (2013-03-03). "Who Is The 'Devil's Advocate'?". Weekend Edition Sunday. NPR. Retrieved 9 February 2014.
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