by Mark Gutman

Devil’s Advocate On July 5, Pope John Paul II was cleared for sainthood in an unusually quick canonization process. In the Roman Catholic world, sainthood is the last (highest) of a four-step process: servant of God, venerable, blessed, and saint. Each new step brings certain recognition and honors.

John Paul II’s speedy accomplishment was helped by two notable changes. When John Paul II became pope, becoming a saint required four “miracles” to be credited to one’s account. John Paul II reduced the four to two. (Pope Francis I is cutting the two to one, to help John XXIII.) But the other change was probably more crucial. John Paul II did away with the “devil’s advocate,” a position set up in 1587 to argue against sainthood.1 The devil’s advocate was to “to take a skeptical view of the candidate's character, to look for holes in the evidence, to argue that any miracles attributed to the candidate were fraudulent, and so on.”2 Doing away with the devil’s advocate enabled John Paul II to canonize 483 individuals in only 26½ years (18+/year), a record pace for a pope.

The number of saints has been increasing rapidly since (and probably partly because) the devil’s advocate was omitted from the canonization process. Benedict XVI canonized 44 in eight years (5.5/year). That’s down from John Paul II’s pace, but still far ahead of other popes. Sainthood and criminal courts are not related, but their processes serve as examples of direct opposites. You could say that the former employs only defense, while the latter relies on prosecution and defense. A courtroom generally allows each side the chance to poke holes in the other side’s case, while the canonizers say, “No protest allowed.”

One process weighs evidence; the other does not. Who or who is not canonized does not affect everyday life of most people. We don’t need to plead with the Roman Catholic Church to improve its process for canonizing saints. We would, however, be quite concerned if we learned that a judge allowed only the prosecution or defense (either, but not both) to present a case. But you don’t need a courtroom to have a problem with one-sided presentations.

Did you ever hear a report that made someone else sound bad? Isn’t it easy to accept it when it confirms what we already want to believe about the one reported on? Why bother to check it out? Do away with the “devil’s advocate.” Accept it as gospel truth, to be believed and passed on as such. Of course, if the bad report is about someone we favor (or about us), we consider the reporter to be biased or guilty of reporting before all the facts are in. This is a natural way to act, as “confirmation bias” saves us from taking the time to investigate every report we come across. If I don’t want to encounter something that might dent the package of politics (or theology) I have carefully put together, my strategy is simple. I will avoid listening to MSNBC (or Fox News), and avoid reading material from organizations such as Adventist Today. Of course, I will consequently constantly be puzzled how people could see things differently from me.

John Paul II decreed that there is to be no “devil’s advocate” for blocking sainthood for someone that has been proposed for it and made it past initial steps. Madeleine Van Hecke assigns her students “to investigate a way of life, an attitude, or a set of beliefs that is poles apart from their own. . . . The primary goal of learning about the opposite pole was not to evaluate it in an analytical way, but to try to grasp how it was possible for someone else to see the world so differently.”3

So whose style is probably closer to yours when it comes to investigation? John Paul II? Only one side allowed to make a presentation. Or Van Hecke? Let’s see why the other side is making such claims. At least let’s check into it before we badmouth the other side.

But what about Adventist church doctrines? Such as the Sabbath, the second coming, or baptism by immersion. Why read material on doctrines that our church studied out long ago, and that we have probably studied quite well ourselves? There may not be much point, but sometimes others have come up with newer ways to present differing positions. If we want them to look at our newer presentations, we owe them the courtesy of looking at theirs. Unless we’re doing away with the devil’s advocate. Up with John Paul II. Down with Van Hecke. That verse about “better never to have known the truth than to have known it and fallen away” still scares believers and outweighs many other Bible verses. It permits people to feel they are doing something good (safe) by not reading anything that might disagree with accepted doctrine.

What about “lesser” Adventist doctrines?4 Women’s ordination, the 144,000, or “ornamentation.” Is there more of a case for reading about less important material? Maybe not, unless you are going to try to get the other side to believe your way, or are going to criticize the other side.

If I’ve reached the “contented” stage where I am not expecting to find “new light” or experience a major change in my perspective, I can relax. My positions are already well-researched. Why bother to read something challenging? Or is “threatening” the more appropriate word? If I already have so much invested in my point of view, why risk losing my investment? Many lose a sense of wanting to grow by age 20 or 30. Others are still scaling new heights at age 80.

If I am going to quit investigating (and letting both sides weigh in), then in fairness I should also quit asking others to investigate. Don’t ask others to go to evangelistic meetings, unless it’s for entertainment. Why ask others to look at both sides of an issue when I don’t do that anymore?

John Paul II meant well when he abolished the devil’s advocate. Except to the extent that his action leads others to quit looking at challenging evidence on important matters, who cares? But as people who are interested in progress and advance, we can’t afford the risks of his method. We need to be more like the judge who allows the prosecution to present the evidence against the accused, while also ensuring that the defense gets a chance to show why that evidence is flawed.

In my never-ending efforts to learn more, I do not have time to study every differing position. But until I have tried to let a devil’s advocate defend the position I’m disagreeing with, I will be slow to trumpet how wrong someone else’s position is. I may never be canonized, but I am less likely to tromp on truth or to hurt others.

1 The office, or canon lawyer, was actually the “Promoter of the Faith,” but more popularly known as the “Devil’s advocate’”
3 Van Hecke, Madeleine. Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. See more that I quoted in my March 2013 column, “Listening to Another Side.”
4 I realize that these are not regarded as “lesser” by some, but I am distinguishing them from the doctrines listed on the baptismal certificate.