“The Devil’s Advocate”: A History

So I’m in Law School now, which means that I pay more attention to lawyery things than usual. And with the recent canonization of Mother Teresa this last Sunday, I got to thinking about one of the more interesting, law-related Catholic expressions that has slipped into everyday usage.

I’m talking about being “the devil’s advocate” – you know, like when you argue for a different side of an issue just because, or when you don’t agree with something but you speak for it anyway: that’s being the devil’s advocate.

It’s one of those marvelously clear expressions: you don’t like the devil, but you’ll advocate for him. Straight-forward. Makes sense.

What does this have to do with Mother Teresa, you say? Well, did you know that “the Devil’s Advocate” was originally (and still is) a title used in the process of Catholic canonization, of making saints?


I mean, look at that face! How could you say no to that face?

Don’t Be Hasty
Here’s how it works: when the Catholic church has a new candidate for sainthood, they don’t just rush forward and name them a saint, no matter who they were. There’s a long, laborious process with many steps and requirements. Not just anyone can become a saint.

Take Mother Teresa, for instance: almost universally acknowledged as one of the most godly women to have ever lived. You’d think making her a saint would take no time whatsoever.

And yet, the woman passed away in 1997. It’s been 19 years since she passed away, and she was only just declared a saint two days ago.

But let me tell you – two decades may seem like a pretty significant waiting period of time for such a clearly holy woman, but that’s lightning fast compared to the normal timeline.

Usually it takes anywhere from 50-600 years for the process to run its course. Joan of Arc herself had to wait 489 years before she was formally declared a saint! 489 YEARS! That’s twice as long as America’s been a country!

Why does it take so long? I mean, what’s there against someone like Mother Teresa, or Joan of Arc for that matter, being named a saint?

A Saintly Trial
This is where we come back to my favorite expression. You see, every person put forward as a potential new saint has to be put on trial. Yes, like in a court and everything. And, as with every court case, there are two sides, each with their own (canon) lawyer for representation:

  • there’s the one arguing for sainthood–the “Promoter of the Cause”, or God’s Advocate;
  • And, of course, the one arguing against sainthood–the “Promoter of the Faith”, also known as the Devil’s Advocate.

By the way, Monsignor Carmelo Pellegrino here is the current appointed “Devil’s Advocate” for the Church. He looks so nice!

Dun dun DUN!

Essentially, the Devil’s Advocate is the Catholic Church’s officially appointed skeptic. His job is to poke all the holes he can in the argument for making someone a saint. Then, the “Promoter of the Cause” rebuts him any way he can, finding the evidence in the candidate’s favor.

Fun job.

But wait – there’s more!
The trial makes the candidate pass through a series of metaphorical hoops, so to speak, to make the cut. There are 4 stages to canonization, each with its own process and regulations:


  1. Servant of God  (starts at the local level: typically, you have to wait 5 years after the death of the candidate before you can even start considering them. Then you gather all the information about the person you can, and a formal tribunal is called – with witnesses, evidence, the whole gambit…The first stage of the trial passes through 9 theologians who consider the case, and vote; if approved, the case moves on to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, made up of cardinals and bishops) → 


    Meanwhile, Pope Pius IX has been stuck at stage 1 for 189 years…

  2. Venerable  (candidate officially brought to the attention of the Pope, and the faithful of the church may pray for God’s will to be manifest as to whether the person should be canonized, or no) →
  3. Blessed  (in order to reach this level, the candidate has to either: 1) be a martyr, or 2) have performed a miracle) →
  4. Saint  (for a candidate to reach this level, at least 2 miracles have to have been performed through their intercession after they died – this is in addition to the miracle making them “blessed”)

The canonization process, with its court-like approach, encompasses all these steps, with God’s and the Devil’s Advocates working their sides all along the way until one side wins out.

If all the arguments of the Devil’s Advocate are sufficiently addressed, the person can finally be made a saint.


Mother Teresa just recently completed this ordeal: she had gone through the whole trial, with the Devil’s Advocate offering his many arguments. But in the end, she passed the test. This last Sunday, on September 4, Mother Teresa was officially canonized as a saint in the Catholic Church.

It comes down to this: the Catholic Church is very careful about who is named a saint. The church would rather take its time and make sure it has super-legit and uncontested saints, than rush through some iffy ones without considering the other side of the matter.

And if it takes a Devil’s Advocate to have a balanced assessment, then so be it.

I think that’s pretty cool.


Saint Teresa of Calcutta



One thought on ““The Devil’s Advocate”: A History

  1. Thank you for an interesting article. The position of devil’s advocate in the canonization process is interesting. As you indicated, the devil’s advocate argues against a person progressing through the process. It seems like the advocate’s task would be easier for a candidate who has been alive the last 30 years. Take the case of Joan of Arc. A devil’s advocate would have difficulty finding out what she said and did on a daily basis. However, if Joan of Arc was alive “recently”, the advocate could check her Facebook page, her blog, as well as Twitter and Instagram. With that level of information, a devil’s advocate would have an easier time finding weaknesses and shortcomings.
    I also wondered how hard a devil’s advocate should work. If I were the devil, it seems like I would want as many people as possible to make it through the canonization process. Why? Because if you can convince people it is easy to become a saint, you effectively lower the bar of righteousness. The lowered bar would mean people would not worry about making mistakes and repenting. To paraphrase a Book of Mormon writer, a condition in the last days is that people would believe they could eat, drink and be merry and still be saved in the kingdom of God. Being a devil’s advocate who argues in favor of a low threshold for canonization seems like a way to accomplish this change in people’s concepts of bad, good and best.

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