Conspiracies and Catholicism: Devil’s Advocate

Frank - Moses

Frank - Moses

In some instances, “devil’s advocate” gets used as a polite form of various colloquialisms for a person who likes to cause trouble, or offer an opposing perspective to an issue. This label can result in great surprise on finding out that it’s Catholic– and a good thing, to boot.

They’re part of the saint verification process, and the technical or official term is Promotor Fidei, Promoter of the Faith. This is part of the investigation prior to the recognition of sainthood, coming after ‘servant of God’ but before ‘Venerable’ or ‘Saint.’ The office is part of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, which along with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments use to be organized as the Congregation of Rites.

The vital job of the Devil’s Advocate is to test the evidence put forward to show sainthood– the thing that happened, what possible-if-unlikely natural reasons are there for it? The good deed, what less than worthy possible motive? What are the weaknesses in the argument which would go unexamined if one assumes the best possible interpretation?

Broader Principle of Devil’s Advocate

William Roper:  So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More:  Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper:  Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More:  Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!
Dialogue from A Man for All Seasons

If you’re wondering– yes, the quote is a play on words, seeing as how Saint Thomas More was a lawyer, but the primary reason I chose it is because it illustrates a very important danger. Good intentions are not enough– just because you mean well doesn’t mean you will do well. You see an obvious evil being protected by something? Well, tear it down– except that action of destroying the protective barrier may be worse than the evil you’re trying to stop. A famous Catholic observed on a related theme that if you don’t know why a restriction was placed where it was, you shouldn’t remove it. In these times of the Internet, many people have had to add to this in the tune of “and no, ‘because they’re an idiot’ isn’t a reason.”

These arguments are very rarely met with popular support. Almost by definition, when emotions run high and the danger is immediate, there’s going to be very little desire to listen to someone who pokes at a weak spot in the popular view. When something is popular, it seldom needs people to be arguing for it. On the flip side, when the danger has passed there’s likewise a very real danger that people will keep making the same strident arguments even though there isn’t the same of opposition.

Eventually, this results in arguments which are as untested as the thing they originally argued against were. This approach can be incredibly dangerous, because the fastest way to destroy a position is to undermine it. If a thing is only mostly right, those who have been smacked with the part that isn’t are extremely vulnerable to any argument that recognizes the reality they know. (This is known as the fallacy fallacy– that because an argument is wrong, then the conclusion is wrong; a bad argument only fails to support the position it’s supposed to be advancing. Fallacies exist because they appeal to how people think.) If there’s not a well established framework for testing ideas, and figuring out good boundaries rather than blanket-applied prudence, then everyone is the poorer for it.

It’s human to be upset when something you care about is threatened, but we’re supposed to try to be more than human– we’re supposed to try to be Christ-like in our own behavior.


Christ-like love, self-sacrificing love, wishing the best for the other– that’s charity. When someone is the Devil’s Advocate and we don’t agree, it’s natural to bristle. The proper response is to meet the arguments, though, rather than making it personal– they may have identified a serious weakness in your argument, one that could make it fail.  C. S. Lewis had a wonderful section in The Screwtape Letters— I know, not narrowing it down a lot, am I?– about assuming that when someone annoys you, they’re doing it on purpose. It’s useful to try to assume they could be trying to do good. I find it very useful to check for fallacies, for questionable sources and for a misunderstanding, for example; I’ve noticed that others tend to look immediately at motives rather than what was actually said– both routes can be good or bad, depending on how they’re used. Very frequently the source of an argument between two people acting in good faith is questionable information, or ‘I don’t think that said what you think it said.’

My mom had a learn-to-think game she use to play when we were kids, called “what’s the rest of the story”– it involved reading or listening to the news, and trying to identify what information may have been left out that would account for things and yet change the conclusion that a reasonable person would draw from it. This sounds dry, but it’s fun– you can make it silly, or just build a good story out of it, but it’s fun in the same way conspiracy theories are.

An example would be two men who pushed little old ladies; one goes to jail, and the other is given a medal. The part left out is that the one in jail pushed the lady in front of a bus, and the guy with a medal pushed her out from in front of a bus. These gaps can be innocent enough, and usually show up because the source of the information was writing it down for an entirely different purpose than it ended up being used. That is probably why my mom’s side of the family also has the saying that, if you can’t argue against a thing, you don’t know enough about the situation to be arguing for it, and the other way around.

Try assuming that the other person in a discussion is also acting in good will, and answer the arguments that way. At least initially; sadly, the devil is all too willing to abuse his advocates, and you can sharpen iron on iron until both are worn to nothing.

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4 thoughts on “Conspiracies and Catholicism: Devil’s Advocate”

  1. The item of who makes the argument is quite important. Ayn Rand is excoriated for her views on religion and human relations but given faint praise for her advocacy of reality based positions (objectivism) in the secular world. While one speaks of the “whole” man, it is easy to forget that humans are composed of many parts, not all consonant with one another in all things.

  2. I heartily agree with your mom’s side of the family, that to argue pro effectively, one must be able to argue con. Initially, I thought Richard Dawkins was a shallow thinker. Later, I realized I agreed with him in his fundamental insight, namely that Darwinian evolution may be applied to biology, but is, in itself, an arithmetical algorithm. Even Dawkins’ philosophy of probability is a respectable epistemology, if adequately articulated.

    1. *nod* Something can be wrong, without being stupid– one thing I notice with Dawkins and some of his most vocal followers is that contempt is poisonous. It can destroy your ability to, as you put it, ‘adequately articulate’ a view.

    2. Perhaps. But I at least waste enough time without pursuing arguments that I know are going nowhere; Philippians 4:8 is better advice for my time management. The situation might be different if I were friends with either Dawkins himself or one of his many supporters, so that we actually talked to each other, but in my experience it is much more likely that the two sides of such a debate are merely talking at each other.

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