It’s a familiar phrase that I am confident we have all not only heard, but probably used, at one time or another. “He’s playing the devil’s advocate” or “He’s the devil’s advocate”. But, the Catholic Church actually has an office for that very reason. It’s an office that is often referred to as “Devil’s Advocate.”
Contrary to the popular belief, the office was not eliminated from the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II. However, he did change it. He reformed it in 1983.
There are a lot of things that go on out of public view when considering canonization of a saint that many would not think. After all, the decision is not to be taken lightly.
The Cause of a Saint includes writings, their dedication and devotion, miracles attributed to them after death, and many other things in promoting why that saint should be canonized. But, there is the ‘devil’s advocate’ that is responsible for just the opposite.
Although the role has been changed dramatically, it still has a role in whether an individual is canonized.
First attested to by Pope Leo X and established by Pope Sixtus V, the Devil’s Advocate was the official name of the Promoter Fidei.
The role of the individual in this position was to oversee….supervise so to speak….the beatification and canonization of a person. 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.
The 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia continues to explain his position.
“It is his duty to suggest natural explanations for alleged miracles, and even to bring forward human and selfish motives for deeds that have been accounted heroic virtues…His duty requires him to prepare in writing all possible arguments, even at times seemingly slight, against the raising of any one to the honours of the altar. The interest and honour of the Church are concerned in preventing any one from receiving those honours whose death is not juridically proved to have been ‘precious in the sight of the Lord.’”
Although it had good intentions, it soon came up against a lot of opposition because leaders complained that it made it too difficult for a person to be canonized.
So… in steps Pope John Paul II into the picture.
Pope John Paul II changed that role to a great degree….but contrary to popular belief…it was not eliminated.
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.
Sorry Wikipedia, you’re wrong. The position still exists and was never done away with or eliminated. It just changed.