HOUSTON — March 25, 2011 — The devil’s advocate is not Keanu “I know Kung Fu” Reeves, in the popular 1990’s silver screen drama, “The Devil’s Advocate” (1997), co-starring Al Pacino and Charlize Theron.
The “Devil’s Advocate,” or “Advocatus Diaboli,” is a term that comes out of the Roman Catholic tradition regarding the cause for, ironically, sainthood.
Saints are holy people that are, for the purposes of this article, officially declared so by the Roman Catholic Church, for either having lived a holy Christian life and/or having had qualifying miracles occur in the sake of their name.
The Church, however, does not take the cause of sainthood, formally called the cause of canonization, lightly. There is usually a long period of many years, sometimes decades or even centuries, of cynical investigation, before a person can be beatified, or declared “blessed.”
The Church understands that a person perceived to have lived a good Christian life may not be so, in actuality. Therefore, it always approaches the cause of canonization with a skeptical eye.
Around 1587, Pope Sixtus V required that the cause of canonization be argued in a pro and con fashion. He established two legal representatives to debate the case: the Promoter of the Cause, or God’s advocate (Advocatus Dei), and the Promoter of the Faith, or the Devil’s advocate (Advocatus Diaboli).
The official title of “Promoter of the Faith” was established in 1708, until John Paul II reformed the position to be the Promoter of Justice in 1983.
Though the person who held the title of the ‘Devil’s Advocate’ may not have been skeptical himself, it was his duty to put into writing any and all possible arguments against why a person being considered for beatification should not succeed. His intent was to find flaws in the character, and shoot holes in the evidence for a potential saint. Sometimes he succeeded; sometimes he did not.
Not all Devil’s Advocates are men of the cloth. The Church sometimes hires the services of an outsider to informally partake in the role for an objective consideration, particularly for a controversial figure.
Recently, Christopher Hitchens, the noted journalist and self-proclaimed atheist, played this role for the beatification for Mother Theresa of Calcutta in 2002.
The modern day usage of this phrase, Devil’s Advocate, still retains its essence: a person who debates, for the sake of being contrary, whether to understand all sides of an argument, or just to enliven a conversation.
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Erica Bonnell is a native Houstonian and proud Texan. Aside from travelling, volunteering and educating, she spends much of her spare time in theological pursuits. Her personal adventures with faith and divorce are regularly blogged at http://writtenstraw.wordpress.com.
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