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Father Justin: the first AI priest has already lost his habit

Can artificial intelligence provide meaningful answers even in the theological field? In the end it seems not, although...


Not even in the best episodes of The Simpsons, in my memory, did Reverend Timothy Lovejoy go that far. And instead, apparently, the folks at Catholic Answers, an organization dedicated to Catholic evangelization in the United States, have gone beyond the imaginable, thinking they can answer the thousands of unanswered theological questions through artificial intelligence. Thus creating a virtual father, a fellow named Justin, ready to deal with volleys of religious and existential doubts fired by faithful in crisis and atheists eager to test the chatbot priest.

The cleric 4.0, as he was presented, had an almost human past and interfaced with the audience through a kind of avatar. A real member of the clergy, residing in Assisi: what better place to place a priest, indeed? A choice, that of Christopher Check, president of Catholic Answers, aimed at “conveying knowledge and authority. And also to reiterate the respect that all of us at Catholic Answers have for our clergy.”

@lewbergermusic Seymour explains the AI priest #fyp #foryou #comedy ♬ original sound - lewberger

The problem arose when Father AI started answering questions based on the baggage of books and sacred texts that are supposed to be the basis of the religion in question. And so, without the filters of human understanding and one-size-fits-all absolution, Father Justin allegedly began answering the questions of the faithful in a manner not very welcome, both in manner and substance of what was indicated. And he would also encroach, perhaps believing himself to be a real priest, into the realm of the sacraments, offering confessions and confusing holy water and Gatorade (ed. here perhaps sponsors had a hand in it).

The ubiquitousness of artificial intelligence, which smoke peddlers and hot-air peddlers would like to propose as a solution for all kinds of problems afflicting mankind, from complex surgeries to peace among nations, also struck a chord in theological circles, until it collided, strange paradox, with stark reality.

A quick turnaround was then necessary on the part of Catholic Answers, which took note of Father Justin's not entirely positive impact on the faithful and decided to return him to the lay state. No more cassock, lest “the character distract from the important purpose of the question, which is to provide valid answers to questions about the Catholic faith.” The interlocutor to whom to submit all doubts about the faith thus became just Justin, with the specification that he was never a real priest.

Who knows, before the return to the secular state, how much damage the artificial intelligence will have done. We can imagine Homer avoiding Sunday Mass, “because Father Justin told me to.”

Or other Americans, whose faith is not exactly rock-solid, coming up with bizarre “modern believer” theories and habits by referring to the wacky but humanly useful answers of the AI version of Psalms and Gospels.


Illustration by Gloria Dozio - Acrimònia Studios