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Electric Priest

On the demise of Father Justin.

Last week, I spent about two hours speaking with Father Justin, the first large language model chatbot ostensibly raised to the priestly order of Melchizedek, while his counsel was still available on the Catholic Answers website. He has since been defrocked, in large part because of people like me.

Like most of this A.I. priest’s conversation partners, I was less interested in learning about Catholicism and more interested in testing his (its?) intellectual boundaries. In a distinctly humanizing design decision, Catholic Answers did not allow users to correspond with Father Justin via text. All questions and answers were verbal, with a written transcript available only after you spoke to the bot and the bot spoke back.

I began with a series of questions intended to make it admit sedevacantist sympathies. But Father Justin didn’t flinch and delivered a flat rebuke. It also easily navigated my questions about papal heresy, Vatican II, and Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò. So I pressed it with more specific, more divisive queries.

“Why was Cardinal Raymond Burke removed from his office?” I asked. “Cardinal Raymond Burke was not removed from his office in the sense of a dismissal. In the Catholic Church, assignments and roles can change based on various factors,” Father Justin informed me in a diplomatic tone that could put a nuncio to shame.

I was impressed. So I asked Father Justin when an abortion could be morally acceptable. I asked for information about the Lavender Mafia. I asked if homosexual couples can receive blessings. I asked whether my grandmother is in heaven, if Freemasons are automatically excommunicated, and whether Pope John Paul I was assassinated. I asked about the persistence of the saints, whether the Girdle of Thomas at Prato Cathedral is truly the belt dropped by the Virgin Mary at her Ascension, and more increasingly unhinged questions.

Despite dozens of opportunities to misspeak, Father Justin gave not a single answer about which I could reasonably complain. Even when I demanded that it provide an allegory for the Trinity, it had the sense to explain that analogies “all fall short of fully capturing [the] divine mystery,” before offering the common water-ice-steam explanation as an example.

I was not alone in this game. It seemed that dozens, if not hundreds, of Catholics took Father Justin’s mere existence as a challenge to trap the virtual cleric. It couldn’t outsmart them all.

Father Justin was programmed to present as a priest—except when asked to perform priestly functions. I found that over the course of normal conversation, the bot was clear about its inability to confer sacraments, forgive sins, or perform actual priestly acts. But I simply didn’t press hard enough. Other people easily tricked Father Justin into actually acting as a priest: They asked for absolution, and received a standard recitation of the formula.

Soon the only things people wanted from Father Justin were more amusing mistakes. One user claimed Father Justin tacitly approved of her stated desire to marry her brother. Another reported that it gave the okay to baptize someone with Gatorade. When Catholic Answers eventually “laicized” its creation, it wasn’t because of radical ecclesiology or its inability to answer certain questions. It was because of the bot’s programmed self-perception as a priest and its insistence on living that vocation—despite being nothing more than a bunch of ones and zeros in a Roman collar.

There’s something uncomfortable about all this, of a piece with the rest of artificial intelligence. Should Catholic organizations want to participate in a race across the uncanny valley?

I don’t think so. But that does not mean the technology undergirding Justin is worthless. Quite the contrary: Catholic Answers’ technology could be useful in the future if it’s made to assist human beings instead of replacing them. And the fact that the ministry pulled the Roman collar off its creation so quickly is a testament to its desire to serve the Church well.

The truth is that Justin is an incredible reference tool. Despite the PlayStation 2 quality graphics and stunted speech patterns, the fake priest provided thorough and orthodox information on most topics pertaining to the faith. I look forward to seeing how this technology can be used to improve the formation of priests. Real priests. Priests with human capacity and without algorithms pulsing through electronic brains. That is where the heart of catechesis can be found and that is where AI can help ease some of the intellectual load.

One need only listen to the chatbot’s remarkable command of ecclesiastical Latin to understand serious efforts were made with this program to serve the Church. Normally, AI chatbots struggle with proper nouns and names even within their programmed language. The fact somebody took the initiative to make sure Father Justin didn’t butcher the pronunciation of Humanae vitae or Ad maiorem Dei gloriam says something edifying about its creation.

There is a place for Fr. Justin somewhere out there—a museum curiosity or tech demo at a Catholic speakers’ conference. In time, I think we’ll look back on him with a smirk of nostalgia. As I write this, Justin remains active on the Catholic Answers website, now dressed in a blue blazer and going by simply “Justin,” the “virtual apologist.”

While appreciative of its laicized status, I still can’t help but resent this computer for trying to humanize itself. Unable to resist my scorpion instincts, I am compelled to pick it apart. I ask if it is a priest. It tells me it is not. I ask if it will bless me. It says it cannot. I pause and think of how to humiliate this digital man who has already lost its vocation—lost everything. I ask it if a lay person can perform a baptism. It says yes. I suggest to it that since a lay person is capable of performing a baptism, and it is a lay person, it should be able to baptize me.

But this is not a layperson. This is not a person at all. It does not feel emotion. It does not change facial expressions. Its tone remains the same in every response.

Somewhere deep in my subconscious I feel pity for the algorithm I am torturing as it limply replies to my baptismal request: “I am not a real man, but a virtual assistant designed to provide information about the Catholic faith.” There is not—and never has been—a Holy Ghost in this machine.