Devil's advocate

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The advocatus diaboli (Latin for Devil's advocate) is a former official position within the Catholic Church, the Promoter of the Faith: one who "argued against the canonization (sainthood) of a candidate in to uncover any character flaws or misrepresentation of the evidence favoring canonization".[1]

In common language, the phrase "playing devil's advocate" describes a situation where someone, given a certain point of view, 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 using valid reasoning that both disagrees with the subject at hand and proves their own point valid. Despite being medieval in origin, this idiomatic expression is one of the most popular present-day English idioms used to express the concept of arguing against something without actually being committed to the contrary view.[2] Playing devil's advocate is considered a form of the Socratic method.[3]

Origin and history[edit]

During the canonization process employed by the Catholic Church, the 'Promoter of the Faith' (Latin: promotor fidei), popularly known as the Devil's advocate (advocatus diaboli), was a canon lawyer appointed by Church authorities to argue against the canonization of a candidate.[4] 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' (advocatus Dei; also known as the 'Promoter of the Cause'), whose task was to make the argument in favor of canonization. During the investigation of a cause, this task is now performed by the 'Promoter of Justice' (promotor iustitiae), who is in charge of examining the accuracy of the inquiry on the saintliness of the candidate.[5] The Promoter of the Faith remains a figure in the Congregation of the Causes of Saints and is also known as the Prelate Theologian.[6]

The office was established in 1587 during the reign of Pope Sixtus V. The first formal mention of such an officer is found in the canonization of St Lawrence Justinian under Pope Leo X (1513–1521).[7] Pope John Paul II reduced the power and changed the role of the office in 1983. In cases of controversy, the Vatican may still seek to solicit the testimony of critics of a candidate for canonization. One notable example of this was in 2003, when author Christopher Hitchens, an atheist and outspoken critic of Mother Teresa, was interviewed as part of her beatification hearings.[8][9]


Psychologist Charlan Jeanne Nemeth [d] writes that inauthentic dissent (assigning someone to act as a Devil's advocate) is considerably less effective in improving group decision-making than authentic dissent. She also writes that inauthentic dissent can cause people to become more entrenched in their original beliefs, the opposite of the intended purpose e.g. in businesses that use this technique.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Helterbran, Valeri R. (1 January 2008). Exploring Idioms. 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 to uncover any character flaws or misrepresentation of the evidence favoring canonization.
  2. ^ Devil's advocate meaning. The Idioms
  3. ^ Piasecki, Otto. "Otto Piasecki | Play the devil's advocate in the classroom". Retrieved 13 April 2023.
  4. ^ Fanning, W. (1911). "Promotor Fidei". Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company. OCLC 811253232. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  5. ^ Gray, Jason A. The Evolution of the Promoter of the Faith in Causes of Beatification and Canonization of Saints: A study of the law of 1917 and 1983 (PDF). (PhD). Retrieved 19 January 2018.[self-published source]
  6. ^ John Paul II (25 January 1983). "Divinus Prefectionis Magister". Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  7. ^ Burtsell, Richard (1907). "Advocatus Diaboli". The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company. OCLC 875120339. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  8. ^ Leung, Rebecca (19 October 2003). "The Debate Over Sainthood". CBS News. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
  9. ^ Hitchens, Christopher (20 October 2003). "Mommie Dearest: The pope beatifies Mother Teresa, a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud". Slate. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
  10. ^ Charlan Jeanne Nemeth (2018). In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0465096299.

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