The Origin Of The Term ‘Devil’s Advocate’ Is More Literal Than You Think

Published January 2, 2018
Updated February 27, 2024

The position of advocatus diaboli, or devil's advocate, existed at the Vatican for centuries.

John Paul II and Mother Teresa

Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Playing “devil’s advocate” is a phrase we’ve all heard or said before. It’s used by a person taking a contrarian stance, especially when they’re espousing an idea they don’t truly believe in order to have a vigorous debate. This can play out in classrooms, boardrooms, and even movie theaters, but as it turns out “devil’s advocate” was an actual person within the Catholic Church.

Catholicism is steeped in ritual and tradition as any 2,000-year-old institution is likely to be. Canonization is one that has been around in some form or another since the religion’s beginnings. It’s the process by which the Church designates someone a saint by adding them to the canon, or list of official saints.

In the early years of Christianity, worshipers who died because of their belief in Jesus were celebrated as martyrs. This began with the Apostles but grew to include others considered especially pious.

Because of the decentralized structure of the Church at this point in history, bishops and other mid-level figures had the power to deify saints on a local level. But by the 12th century this power was ceded directly to the Pope himself, and with this came a codification of the path to sainthood.

Canonization is a drawn out process that takes time, not to mention a miracle or two (or more). It involves several formal ranks that ends in sainthood. A candidate first begins as a “Servant of God,” followed by the designation “Venerable.” Next is beatification, and finally sainthood.

Each level comes with new prestige and influence. For example, someone who has been “venerated” cannot have a church built in their honor, but people can pray to them for miraculous intervention from God.

This is where the devil’s advocate comes in. In 1587 Pope Sixtus V formally established the position of advocatus diaboli, which is Latin for, you guessed it, “devil’s advocate.” During beatification and canonization proceedings it was up to this church appointed official to call into question the candidate’s saintliness.

And it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable task for the advocate; as the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia stated, “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.” Their duty was seen as difficult but necessary.

Pope John Paul II modernized the canonization process and did away with the formal office in 1983. This streamlined the process tremendously, as John Paul II canonized five times as many people as the rest of his 20th century predecessors.

Even without an official devil’s advocate the tradition carries on to this day. During the canonization process of Mother Teresa, renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens and controversial biographer Aroup Chatterjee argued against her ascent to sainthood.

So why bother with a devil’s advocate in the first place? As Boston Globe language columnist Ben Zimmer put it, “I guess the idea then was that there should be a position advocating a negative view, even if it was unpopular, just so that something as important as sainthood can withstand any kind of skepticism.”

Perhaps this is why the phrase trickled down into the secular world and sticks with us today.

Next, read 20 powerful quotes from Pope Francis on climate change. Then learn how, for centuries, people thought there had been a female pope.

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