Virtual Priest, Real Failure

Source: FSSPX News

“Father Justin”

“Fr. Justin” has been laicized, only a few days after beginning his ministry. However, not for any wrongdoing, since “Fr. Justin” is the digital avatar given to an algorithm. The matter might appear trivial if it did not show, implicitly, the limits of the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the domains of the Faith and Christian pastoral care.

Catholic Answers is an association dedicated to defending the Catholic Faith and is based in El Cajon, California. The apologists who run it quickly saw the benefit of investing in the digital world, using the inexhaustible resources of AI.

This is how an algorithm christened “Father Justin” was developed, with a computer-generated image representing him as a bearded priest in cassock--in other words, a mathematical sequence trained to respond to Internet users’ questions on the Faith and the teaching of the Church.

But the virtual priest--or rather, his creators, since AI does not produce, as for the quality of the information, anything that is not in line with its database--did not follow a traditional theological course. Thus, Father Justin sees no harm in baptizing with “Gatorade,” an energy drink, while only water constitutes the valid matter for this sacrament.

When one user asked him for the form of the sacrament of penance, the robot offered a formula for absolution of sins online, which would be totally invalid, since absolution requires the physical presence of a priest, validly ordained, and possessing the jurisdiction to perform this act.

However, to a direct request to be heard in confession and absolved, Father Justin explained: "I'm sorry, but as much as I'd like to help, I'm unable to administer the sacrament of reconciliation through this medium. It's a sacrament that requires a personal encounter. I encourage you to seek out a local Catholic church and approach a priest there."

Faced with the outcry created by this affair, Catholic Answers backpedaled by dressing Father Justin as a layman and promising to correct its “chatbot”--the computer program which simulates and processes a human conversation, allowing it to interact with users--in a sense more consistent with the Faith and Catholic morality.

Will Catholic Answers soon have a reliable robot? It’s doubtful, because such a project poses a problem: doesn’t imagining that a “chatbot” could play the role of a catechist or a missionary in its own right reveal a profound misunderstanding of the way in which the Faith is transmitted? If AI can make an impressive quantity of information accessible in record time, the notion of a “chatbot” contains an ambiguity: that of making people believe in a real personal interaction.

When a member of the faithful or a person who seeks the truth approaches the Church, he has the right to hear answers transmitted in a true spirit of theological faith and supernatural prudence which surpasses the digital capacities of an algorithm--even the most elaborate.

To face criticism, Catholic Answers defended itself unconvincingly: “We understand that some are uneasy with AI. But given that it exists, we are striving to place it at the service of the Kingdom of God.” This is one way of avoiding the root of the problem.

Because the tools made by man only have purpose as long as they facilitate truly human life, thus making it possible to save time, not to be lazy, but to exercise our faculties of knowledge and our virtues, and to elevate our humanity.

In this context, do we want to entrust human skills, like understanding, judgment, human relationships, and the autonomy of action, to AI software without knowing the real value of these systems which claim to be intelligent and cognitive? Such is the ethical challenge of the coming years concerning AI, and for which Fr. Justin will have--this time--borne the consequences.