Tough Reference Check

Michael Metzger

On Sept. 4th, Pope Francis canonized Mother Teresa. She was recognized as a saint. The process took over ten years and included a reference check most are unfamiliar with.

The Roman Catholic Church’s canonization process is not unlike how businesses hire. Business employers review reference checks to gauge an applicant’s character. The good ones recognize it’s a challenge, however. Applicants often only list friendly references. Employers might ask for a tough critic, but human nature indicates applicants unwittingly call on only “soft” references. This can shield employers from critical information. Good businesses know this. They persist in seeking tough references.

So did the Roman Catholic Church—at least for 500 years. In 1587, during the reign of Pope Sixtus V, the church established an office called the Promoter of the Faith, popularly known as the Devil’s advocate. The first formal mention of such an officer is found in the canonization of St. Lawrence Justinian under Pope Leo X.

The Devil’s advocate was a lawyer appointed by Church authorities to argue against the canonization of a candidate. He took a skeptical view of the candidate’s character. The Devil’s advocate provided a tough reference check, looking for any flaws, including whether any miracles attributed to the candidate are fraudulent.

The Devil’s advocate didn’t have the final say, however. The Promoter of the Cause, another individual, made an argument in favor of canonization. The church considered both views before deciding the merits of a candidate for sainthood.

In 1983, Pope John Paul II reduced the office. Some say it was to speed up the canonization process. In 2003, he approved the beatification of Mother Teresa. To its credit, the Church still sought out a Devil’s advocate. Church leaders solicited the help of the acidic atheist Christopher Hitchens.

In his memoirs, Hitchens, who passed away in 2011, recalls how he spent several hours in a closed hearing room with a priest, a deacon, and a monsignor. He called Mother Teresa a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud. Hitchens warned that, if Mother Teresa was elevated to sainthood, “even more will be poor and sick if her example is followed.”

She was elevated a few years later.

By soliciting a tough reference check, the Catholic Church heeded the warning of the prophet Jeremiah. The easiest person to dupe is yourself (Jeremiah 17:7-9). Findings from neuroscience support this. Self-awareness is not an individualistic endeavor. It requires an outside voice who decelerates the speed in which you think.

Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive psychologist, has written about this. We have two interrelated systems running in our heads. “System 1” is fast and unconscious. This is how the brain’s left hemisphere operates. But it can be unduly confident as it often relies on untested assumptions but is not open to critique. “System 2” is slow and deliberate. It’s right brain, providing the “outside view,” writes Kahneman. System 2 says, Whoa… let’s slow down… let’s make sure we’re not kidding ourselves. It questions assumptions. Kahneman calls it “the devils advocate.”[1]

King Arthur’s Round Table included a Devil’s advocate. He was Dagonet, the court jester and outsider. He saw what insiders—knights—failed to see. It’s the same role played by a consigliore in Mario Puzo’s Godfather. The consigliore was the chief advisor to Mafia leadership, a Devil’s advocate. He did not risk his life in saying tough things.

A Devil’s advocate offers more than tough reference checks. Pixar employs one to help the executive team reviews its films. Ori Hadomi, CEO of Mazor Robotics, believes every executive team ought to include a Devil’s advocate.[2] Does yours?


[1] Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), pp. 245-254.

[2] Adam Bryant, “Every Team Should Have a Devil’s Advocate,” The New York Times, December 24, 2011.


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One Comment

  1. Mike,

    This is one of my favorite themes that you address in your writing and larger body of work.

    As I think of Pillar, I wonder what the contrarian voice looks like given our focus/mission as it relates to spiritual formation.

    I think we have a strong team of those willing to ‘push back,’ but this post makes me wonder if there might be a specific “type/voice” of devil’s advocate?

    Grace and peace,

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