Shortly before Christmas, noted atheist-author Christopher Hitchens died of esophageal cancer. He was 62. During his lifetime he was a staunch vilifier of Mother Teresa whom he labeled, “fanatic,” “fundamentalist,” “a fraud.”
Hitchens’ malicious video, Hell’s Angel: Mother Teresa, and his book, The Missionary Position, are attempts to prove her unworthiness. So it probably shouldn’t surprise us to learn that Hitchens is believed to be the sole witness called to testify against Mother Teresa’s beatification. That is, at Vatican request in 2002, Hitchens played devil’s advocate regarding Mother Teresa’s qualifications for sainthood.
Devil’s advocate is English for the Latin Advocatus Diaboli, a Roman Catholic term for that person who prepares and presents all imaginable arguments against someone’s canonization.
The reason for this process is to forestall “rash decisions” concerning miracles or sanctification. Promotor Fidae (Promoter of the Faith) is the correct designation for such a naysayer, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. The phrase devil’s advocate is used in the Church only in an ironic or jocular manner.
Still, we often find devil’s advocate in secular
English. When we say, “John is playing devil’s
advocate,” we’re usually suggesting he’s adopted a contrary viewpoint simply to get an argument going.
Here’s a passage from April Thirtieth, a mystery novel by Bernard St. James: “Chief Inspector Blanc thought, ‘It would take anyone four hours to walk that distance across town, hence — since we are playing devil’s
advocate — he would have had to take a
We don’t know when this expression
entered English as a metaphor for anyone offering arguments either to get a discussion underway or to test some proposal’s validity. However, playing devil’s advocate is now
accepted English idiom.
The above meaning isn’t theological or original, but that original usage is still found in fiction today. Here’s an excerpt from Jerome Corsi’s novel, The Shroud Codex: “Archbishop Duncan said, ‘Let Father Morelli
explain it. He is the pope’s top advisor on miracles ... He has played devil’s advocate in prosecuting the case against those being
considered [for] canonization.’”
We may never discover when devil’s advocate became common English usage, but the first mention of Promotor Fidae is found during the canonization of Lawrence Justinian in the reign of Leo X (1513-21).
Many assume the Advocatus Diaboli’s job is to speak in favour of the devil. This has never been the case. Rather, the Advocatus Diaboli plays a role. He steps into the devil’s shoes, so to speak, and presents Satan’s point of view in order to prevent someone’s
elevation to sainthood. Put another way, he denigrates a potential saint just as the devil would.
For centuries, one person, a canon lawyer, played this part. But since 1983, the job has been consigned to a committee of theologians rather than to a single advocate. Nevertheless, the function is the same and the role remains crucial to the canonization process.
And Christopher Hitchens? Well, Mother Teresa’s order of nuns, the Missionaries of Charity, have announced they are praying for his soul.