Cardinal Eijk: The Church Must Speak Out About Artificial Intelligence

May 25, 2023

Cardinal Willem Jacobus Eijk, Archbishop of Utrecht (Netherlands) strongly affirms it: the proliferation of new artificial intelligence (AI) services and offerings requires a response and consideration by the Catholic Church.

The Archbishop of Utrecht is a doctor by training and an expert in sexuality and bioethics. There are two urgent matters for him: on the one hand, that the Church be present on “chatbots” such as ChatGPT or Google’s Bardo, so that the answers also include the religious point of view.

On the other hand, there is a need to reflect more broadly on the impact of AI and, in particular, on how its use, including in the field of pastoral and medical care, affects the way in which societies perceive human beings.

The cardinal, known for having called for a magisterial clarification of the Church on the issue of gender ideology, is convinced that the Church must also examine, through an official document, the impact of AI on the human being, which calls for very broad reflection.

“It is difficult to have an overview of all that AI can do for us, because it is still an area that is not well known. But AI technologies, like chatbots, can also say something about religious issues.”

The fact is that “the chatbot response is the result of an AI calculation. But it does mean that adding religious information can influence responses. For this, we must try to be present in the field of AI. But AI can do much more than text.… It can respond by collecting data and putting it in order or context.”

A striking example is that of Microsoft's “Bing,” which, thanks to AI, has transformed from a search engine to that of a chatbot. Such a system can simulate conversations with saints based on broadcast information about the lives and words of the saints.

Cardinal Eijk admits that some caution is needed, but at the same time: “If we wait too long, others will have introduced more information that will determine the answers.… We do not know the consequences of the widespread use of chatbot software, but we can already foresee a certain scenario.”

“These software programs make mistakes, but what will it be in 10, 20 or even 5 years? There will be other types of AI, much more powerful computers that can give much more precise answers. We can influence the answers now.… Being afraid is understandable, because AI can have very negative consequences for our society.”

The question, continues the cardinal, is not only about the use of software for interaction, but the question of “the robotization of our society, which could lead to the loss of many jobs, especially for people who have not done any specialized studies.… Because the robot is a kind of employee who does not ask for a raise, who works 24 hours a day without getting tired. It could radically change our society.”

The risk of a new “transhumanism,” in which human beings can be treated and perceived as machines, is also a real danger. Thus, Cardinal Eijk recalled that “we already have retirement homes where robots bring the meals. But giving food to the sick is a moment of human contact with the patient that is being lost.”

The shift from simple food distribution to patient care means that, in some practical aspects, human contact becomes increasingly imperceptible. Thus, “if a robot takes a patient out of bed and takes them to the shower, there is a risk that human contact will be completely lost. With the improvement of software, nothing stands in the way of this step.”