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AI Priest Fired by Catholic Group After Pitching Gatorade Baptisms



Artificial intelligence shook up a corner of the Catholic community after Catholic Answers—a San Diego, Calif.-based publisher of church resources—introduced “Father Justin,” an AI chatbot on Monday. The virtual priest was defrocked by the end of the week, but its creators will still allow the chatbot to operate as simply “Justin.”

Catholic Answers said that “Father Justin” was designed to answer questions about the Catholic Faith—for educational and entertainment purposes only. The group's website carried the disclaimer: “In essence, it’s a fancy search engine and not a replacement for real human interaction. If there are issues you struggle with, please seek guidance from your pastor or spiritual advisor.”

Nonetheless, the AI chatbot's launch and some of its answers were poorly received.

“I say this with nothing but respect for you guys and your work, but… this should've just been a plain search engine,” U.S. Army Chaplain Father Mike Palmer wrote. “Dressing it up as a soulless AI avatar of a priest does absolutely nothing except cause confusion and invite mockery of your otherwise excellent work.”

Other users shared examples of Father Justin's priestly counsel, including telling one user they can use Gatorade instead of holy water in a baptism and explaining how a brother and sister can prepare for marriage to each other. Father Justin also accepted a user's confession and then told her all of her sins had been absolved.

Christian scholars, meanwhile, shared examples of the chatbot's apparently poor understanding of the Pope's authority in the Catholic Church.

“Theological questions should not be posed to a computer, any more than spiritual direction or marriage advice should be sought from it,” tweeted author and composer Peter Kwasniewski. ”This is wrong-headed and should be taken down.”

“Doing my best to calm some people’s fears about our use of AI,” Catholic Answers COO Jon Sorensen said on Twitter the day Father Justin launched. “But also, even if this project flops, I think it was still worth it because my crew and I have a much better idea of how we can use AI in our work than we did six months ago.”

The project flopped—Catholic Answers removed Justin from his virtual priesthood after only two days on the job.

“Recently, my colleagues and I at Catholic Answers have received a good deal of helpful feedback concerning another new technology: our AI app, ‘Fr. Justin,’” Catholic Answers President Christopher Check said in a statement. “Prevalent among users’ comments is criticism of the representation of the AI character 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,” he continued. “Many people, however, have voiced concerns about this choice.”

Check said the decision was made to create a “lay” character for the Catholic Answers app as soon as possible.

“Until then, we have rendered ‘Fr. Justin’ just ’Justin.’” Check said. “We won’t say he’s been [removed from the priesthood] because he never was a real priest! He’ll be available to visitors to Catholic.com, thousands of whom have already used the app with great profit.”

Catholic Answers did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Decrypt.

Last summer, as artificial intelligence rushed into the mainstream, the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis—who has been the subject of AI-generated deepfakes—sounded the alarm on the disruptive potential of AI in a prelude to World Peace Day.

“The remarkable advances made in the field of artificial intelligence are having a rapidly increasing impact on human activity, personal and social life, politics and the economy,” Francis said.

In a separate speech in December, Francis called for the ethical development of artificial intelligence to serve humanity and promote peace.

On Friday, the Italian government reportedly confirmed to Vatican City news outlet Vatican News that Pope Francis would be speaking at the G7 summit in Italy in June on artificial intelligence.

“I am convinced that the Pope's presence will provide a decisive contribution to defining a regulatory, ethical, and cultural framework for artificial intelligence,” Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said, then quoting a speech from Pope John Paul in 1979: “Political activity, whether national or international, comes from man, is exercised by man, and is for man.”

Edited by Ryan Ozawa.

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