How often do you find yourself saying, “Well, just to play the Devil’s advocate here…” when making plans, trying to settle a debate, or just to be a pompous ass? If you’re like me, then a lot. But what does that mean, really, to be a Devil’s advocate? Does it mean what we seem to think it does these days? (Which is someone who argues a point to be contrary?) Well, kind of…
Where do I Sign up?
The term “Devil’s advocate” is about 400 years old. It became an official position in the Roman Catholic Church under Pope Sixtux V in 1587. The person in the office had one job: try to convince the Church to NOT beatify/canonize someone (i.e. make them a saint). While lots of stories will pour in about someone arguing that they were a miracle worker, the Church has felt a need to do some due-diligence on candidates. The priest appointed to this position was generally a cannon lawyer, and he (because it was always a ‘he’) would take a skeptical view of all the supposed miracles and try to prove they weren’t real by finding inconsistencies in the story and/or problems with the candidate’s character. When Pope John Paul II changed up the rules in the 80s and went on a blessing spree and made almost 500 saints during his term, the office was quietly shuffled out of the process, and the role of due diligence fell to a new office, that of the Promoter of Justice.
But wait, what’s this?
While the official role of Devil’s advocate kind of (but not quite) went away at the end of the last century, there was a recognition that skepticism was still going to reign and, in fact, was probably going to be a bigger issue moving forward that it was in the past. And then, Mother Teresa died. This was a bad time for the woman whose name was synonymous with all things good and holy to shuffle this mortal coil. Of course, calls for sainthood were immediate, and the Church wanted to follow-up. But how to make it seem like a legit beatification/canonization and not a PR move? Enter the world’s greatest Devil’s advocate, Christopher Hitchens (RIP). The Church actually reached out to Hitchens, a vocal atheist and critic of the Church and Mother Teresa (because yeah, she was hella problematic) and asked him to take on the role of Devil’s advocate to poke holes in MT’s miracles (both of which were healing in nature). Building on his book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, in which he lays out her less than stellar practices, Hitchens wrote a piece called “The Devil and Mother Teresa” (which appears in his collection of essays, Love, Poverty and War), Hitchens laid out for the Church the reasons they shouldn’t confer sainthood on Teresa. They ignored him, but it was still a nice gesture.
Pass me the Yellow Pages
Sometimes, though, I like to take the term “Devil’s advocate” literally, and consider situations where Beelzebub might actually have needed a lawyer. Cut to 1971, when Gerald Mayo filed suit in Pennsylvania against “Satan and His Staff.” The filing claimed "Satan has on numerous occasions caused plaintiff misery and unwarranted threats, against the will of plaintiff, that Satan has placed deliberate obstacles in his path and has caused plaintiff's downfall" and had therefore "deprived him of his constitutional rights.” When he filed the case, Mayo was a little broke and so filed a motion with the court that would see the court cover the legal expenses of the case (known as in forma pauperis). Unfortunately, the court had to decline the motion and throw out the case because Gerald was unable to provide instructions to the US Marshals as to where they could locate Satan to serve him court papers. Better luck next time, G-Dog!
So, remember to always be open minded and willing to play the skeptic when planning/debating. I mean, you don’t want to be less efficient that the Church and the US justice system, do you?
Have a great week!
Devil's advocate (Wikipedia)
Lawsuits against the Devil (Wikipedia)