Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Father Justin was rightly defrocked within two days of his public debut. “Father Justin” was the name given to the AI-powered chatbot recently launched by Catholic Answers as an ill-advised attempt at evangelization. 

There were obvious, immediate problems with the program from launch. When users posed theological questions to the bot, they frequently got incorrect answers. (“Father Justin” told J. D. Flynn of The Pillar that Gatorade was valid matter for baptism.) When users asked for the formula of confession, the bot obligingly offered “absolution” and a blessing. 

Catholic Answers quickly backpedaled, promising to reskin the chatbot as a friendly layman, not a priest given an indelible mark through the sacrament of ordination. They also intend to keep training and trimming the kinds of responses their chatbot tends to give, just as bigger tech companies have worked to stop their AI from trying to break up reporters’ marriages or refusing to create images of white people

The struggles of much bigger tech companies to make their AI corrigible suggest Catholic Answers won’t have a reliably orthodox chatbot any time soon. But the problem with the project goes deeper: To imagine that a chatbot can be a catechist at all indicates a profound misunderstanding of how evangelization works.

When people approach the Church with questions, they deserve to hear the truth spoken in love. A chatbot cannot be reliably trained to speak the truth. More importantly, a chatbot demeans the seeker by feigning a personal connection. Someone approaching the Church is always asking a double question—what does the Church say about this topic and does Jesus love me? The second question is usually asked and answered implicitly. It can’t be built into a prompt—it requires the personal witness and presence of another human being.  

There’s nothing wrong with consulting reference material to begin exploring a question about Christ and his Church. But it’s the interplay of cor ad cor loquitor that is sought in conversation. It’s wrong to simulate this through AI, whether the computer is pretending to be a priest or an ordinary layperson. When a seeker comes forward desiring to be known, it’s not a true witness to offer the hollow, clanging cymbal of a bot that offers to pray for its new “friend” but is unable to keep its promise.  

Facing a wave of criticism, Catholic Answers offered a lukewarm defense: “We understand AI isn't everyone's thing. But as long as it's around, we might as well put it in the service of the Kingdom.” Not every tool we build can be used for good, and many of them require prolonged prayer and investigation before we can determine if and how they can actually be used in the service of the Kingdom. 

Non-human tools work best when they free up our time for our most humane work. I run the laundry machine, rather than wash clothes by hand, so I have more time to play in the dirt with my daughters. God invites us to imitate him as sub-creators. It is a profound misuse of that invitation to build tools to take over our most human and relational tasks.  

A friend asked me if there might be some appropriate use for a Catholic chatbot, whether it operates in the persona of a priest or not. After all, he argued, there are questions that a seeker might feel uncomfortable bringing to a priest or even a Catholic friend. Someone might have a question that feels too personal to ask face to face, or be worried about looking dumb, or simply not want to impose on others.

But those shy, hesitant initial points of contact with the Church are valuable, and are much better served by Catholic Answers’ existing reference material than by the false friendship of an AI. And a seeker who is implicitly asking “Is my curiosity about the Church a waste of anyone’s time?” deserves to hear an emphatic Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows!” That answer can only be heard and believed when a person sets aside time for that seeker and looks at her with love.

When we delegate the work of witnessing Christ to AI, we not only shortchange the seeker, but also ourselves. How will we remember the reason for the hope that is in us if we are not seeking out opportunities to share Christ and welcoming questions? As St. Peter Chrysologus preached in a sermon, “Each of us is called to be both a sacrifice to God and his priest. Do not forfeit what divine authority confers on you.” Offering a chatbot in lieu of a person is trading our birthright for a mess of pottage. 

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles