Between Amens — Why the AI ‘priest’ — ‘Fr. Justin’ — failed

Dr. Karen Shadle

On April 23, Catholic Answers launched “Fr. Justin,” an artificial intelligence (AI)-generated character dressed in a collar and cassock with a neatly groomed gray beard. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Catholic doctrine, canon law, Scripture, church history and much more. 

He could answer any question or engage in any conversation about Catholicism with depth and accuracy. 

As you might suspect, it didn’t go well. Immediately and with Pharisaical zeal, users tried to stump the AI priest. Before long, “Fr. Justin” was offering absolution, insisting that he was a “real priest” and spouting other heresies. After only two days and a flood of outcry, “Fr. Justin” was defrocked and returned to the laical state. 

What happened here? The meteoric rise and fall of the AI priest provides several important lessons.

First, evangelization is relational. 

“Fr. Justin” gave lots of right answers and some wrong ones. But few people are convinced to come to the church (or come back to the church) because of information. A correct answer is useful in its own right, but it is rarely effective without an invitation to discipleship in a real context with real people. 

“Fr. Justin” was wildly unpopular as an evangelist precisely because he was fake. We are instinctively repelled by the smarmy, the airbrushed and the hypocritical in spiritual matters above all else.  

Second, technological advances that make life more convenient are not necessarily morally good. 

It seems no coincidence that the “Fr. Justin” project was aborted on the same day that Pope Francis met with digital communications leaders to discuss AI ethics. When technology replaces human interactions, we must question whether it is actually good for us. 

I experience this every time I meet with friends in person, an encounter that is and will always be better than texting or chatting on the phone, no matter how robust those technologies become. If, over time, a technology atrophies our capacity for relationships, it reduces our humanity. That’s bad. 

Finally, “Fr. Justin” teaches us something very important about the nature of the priesthood. 

In an apology statement, Catholic Answers said they chose to portray a priest “to convey a quality of knowledge and authority.” However, a priest gets his authority not from his vast knowledge, but from being conformed to Jesus Christ through the sacrament of ordination. And Jesus is notably human. An AI priest is not only heretical, it misses the entire point of the priesthood, which is to serve and to love as Christ himself. 

“Fr. Justin” will not be the last attempt at AI ministry, and we can be sure future versions will improve. Even so, beware. 

This month we celebrate the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, when Jesus promised to send us an advocate — the Holy Spirit — to guide the church and to testify to the truth. We must always remember that it is the Spirit — not an algorithm — that continues to animate the church of today and tomorrow.

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