AI chatbot ‘Father Justin’ laicized — did we even need him?

By Greg Erlandson | OSV News

Years ago, I remember a supermarket tabloid cover story about the Vatican creating a robot priest. The image on the cover was an R2D2 type of robot with a confessional stole draped over it.

It was good for a laugh at the time, but here at the dawn of artificial intelligence (AI), I’m not sure who is laughing now.

As if to underscore the point, the organization known as Catholic Answers, which focuses on traditional apologetics and explanations of the faith, recently unveiled “Father Justin.” Father Justin, whose pronoun is “it,” presented as a bearded, middle-aged, AI fueled avatar with a bit of a smirk. This digital Father Justin was ready to answer your questions about the faith, at least until the Catholic internet got a hold of it.

This is a screenshot of “Father Justin,” an AI chatbot simulating a priest in order to answer questions for teaching apostolate Catholic Answers. Catholic Answers executives told OSV News April 24, 2024, they are not discouraged from pursuing AI projects following the troubled April 23 launch of “Father Justin,” who was “laicized” hours later to “Justin” after his responses to questions about the faith sparked social media furor. (OSV News screenshot/Catholic Answers)

Reaction to Father Justin was not kind.

In a classic bit of understatement, Catholic Answers’ president, Christopher Check, said his organization “had received a good deal of helpful feedback” regarding their new technology, particularly that it was presented as a priest.

“We chose the character to convey a quality of knowledge and authority, and also as a sign of the respect that all of us at Catholic Answers hold for our clergy,” Check said in his statement. “Many people, however, have voiced concerns about this choice.”

News organizations have had a field day with the decision to demote Father Justin to just plain old Justin. America magazine’s headline, via OSV News, read “Catholic Answers AI ‘priest’ laicized after backlash.” The National Catholic Register said “Catholic Answers pulls plug on AI priest.” One almost imagines Father Justin as Hal in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” trying to stop Check — “Just what do you think you are doing, Christopher?” — as it is unplugged.

Whether we needed a fake Father Justin is a question worth pondering.

I’m rather tired of how we are anthropomorphizing our technology. My Subaru tells me “see you” when I turn off the engine, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someday it thanks me for filling up the gas tank. While human beings seem to be increasingly impolite, technology is programmed to provide some sort of ersatz human warmth.

Perhaps this is the kind of humanoid interaction that a person with Catholic questions needs, though certainly a flesh-and-blood Catholic would seem much better and more in the Gospel tradition of evangelizing and bearing witness.

While Catholic Answers has been providing just what the name implies for more than 40 years, the idea that we need some sort of fake human to do this seems both predictable and sad. Are we hoping that technology will fill the humanity gap that so many of us feel? Even before the pandemic, people were feeling lonelier and less connected to their fellows.

Since the pandemic, there has been an epidemic of loneliness. It is no coincidence that more humans are having relationships, of sorts, with digital pretend humans, even on porn sites. How long till we have robot partners a la “Blade Runner?”

The malleable nature of machine technology and the rapid growth of machine intelligence is certainly being explored in science fiction. What was once viewed as a threat — The Terminator’s Skynet waging war on humanity — may soon be seen as our rescuer.

In the 2023 sci-fi film “The Creator,” human-like robots called simulants are portrayed as perhaps even better and kinder than humans. It is the remorseless killers of the U.S. Army that are to be feared.

Hollywood will continue to spin its scenarios, but there is one truth that even Father Justin would likely agree with: While human beings are made in God’s image, the technology we invent — for better and for worse — is made in ours.

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Greg Erlandson is an award-winning Catholic publisher, editor and journalist whose column appears monthly at OSV News. Follow him on Twitter @GregErlandson.

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

1 comment

OSV used to be a reliable source for Catholic news. I have my doubts after reading this article. There is no such thing as “traditional apologetics”, only apologetics. What a slam to the vital work that Catholic Answers does! While one can quibble about what the avatar should be named, that does not in any way affect the value of the service it performs. A person sitting at the computer may not need or want flesh and blood at that moment. He may just be studying for his own apologetics in real life, or he may want to be able to read and think about the answers given in private. Mr. Erlandson is short sighted.

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