Catholic Org. Strips AI ‘Priest’ of Clerical Vestments After Massive Christian Outcry - Long Island, NY (2024)

A Catholic media organization called Catholic Answers got itself in a bit of hot water on social media last week when it debuted an app it was calling “Father Justin, your AI Catholic answers advisor,” which featured an artificial intelligence-based animation of a Catholic priest who could answer questions about the faith.

Catholic Answers hoped that the AI animation could serve as a sort of “search engine” to help people get answers to questions they might have about Catholicism and to help guide people to become Catholics.

Chris Costello, director of I.T. at Catholic Answers, went on to speak to their goals with this new AI app.

“Our goal with the Father Justin app is to leverage the power of large language models—or ‘LLMs’—to create an engaging and informative experience for those exploring the Catholic faith,” Costello said in a Catholic Answers news release. “Although this is not a substitute for human interaction with a priest, teacher, or spiritual advisor, we believe it can be a valuable tool to help our users better understand and articulate the teachings of the Catholic faith.”

The AI animation was presented as a common parish priest complete with a white tab collar. That specific detail, however, drew enough of a backlash that the organization has changed course.

The decision to use a parish priest character was purposeful, the news release stated.

“We wanted to convey the spirit and nature of the responses users can expect—authoritative yet approachable, drawing from the deep well of Catholic tradition and teaching. We believe that the presentation of Father Justin honors real-life priests and the role they play in people’s lives, yet we are confident that our users will not mistake the AI for a human being,” Costello said in the release.

Introducing Father Justin, the New Interactive AI from Catholic Answers

Catholic Answers, the number-one lay Catholic apostolate of apologetics and evangelization, is excited to announce the release of our new “Father Justin” interactive AI app. This innovative digital… pic.twitter.com/GDs2KKx216

— Catholic Answers (@catholiccom) April 23, 2024

Has the use of AI gone too far?

In very short order, though, Catholic Answers, an apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, found itself in the middle of a firestorm of protest from the faithful and the non-faithful alike over the online tool.

People began flooding the group with complaints because it had imbued a cartoon creation with the vestments of a Catholic priest. Giving an electronic program a tab collar and priestly vestments seemed to outrage many Catholics who worried awarding a computer program such habiliments made the authentic ones bestowed on real priests less meaningful.

No. I’m sorry, I think you had the best intentions in mind, and it looked great in theory, but in actual practice it’s a terrible idea. Please dispatch him, post-haste. 👎🏻

— Christine Sarracino (@ChrisMSarracino) April 23, 2024

Did any bishops approve of this? Priests can’t be ordained without a bishop

— Texas Trumper (@Texas_Trumper_3) April 23, 2024

Turn it off, you are doing grave damage through this fake AI priest.

— F (@FF483758345) April 24, 2024

Going to break my Twitter reply fast to put the down vote in on this. It undermines the entire ministry of Catholic answers.

— Maria (@marihear) April 24, 2024

im not catholic, and very pro-ai, but it does seem weird to give him a title

— karenb13 (@karenb134) April 26, 2024

The complaints calling this effort an example of “sacrilege” came in so thick that Catholic Answers had to act.

In response, Catholic Answers President Christopher Check announced the company has done a full about face.

“As a media apostolate, we feel very strongly about finding new ways to share the gospel—as our founder, Karl Keating, did many years ago when he started http://Catholic.com to put that wild new technology of the Internet to the service of Catholic truth,” Check explained in a statement released one day after the launch of the “Father Justin” app.

“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.’ Prevalent among users’ comments is criticism of the representation of the AI character as a priest,” the statement continued. “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. Many people, however, have voiced concerns about this choice.

“We hear these concerns; and we do not want the character to distract from the important purpose of the application, which is to provide sound answers to questions about the Catholic faith in an innovative way that makes good use of the benefits of ‘artificial intelligence,’” he added.

So, Check noted that the group is going back to the drawing board and dumping Father Justin… or at least the ‘Father’ part of Father Justin.

A statement from the President of Catholic Answers regarding the character formerly known as “Father Justin”: pic.twitter.com/n3n5q402sO

— Catholic Answers (@catholiccom) April 24, 2024

“We have therefore decided to create, with all wary speed, a new lay character for the app,” he exclaimed. “We hope to have this AI apologist up within a week or so. Until then, we have rendered ‘Fr. Justin’ just ‘Justin.’ We won’t say he’s been laicized, 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. Furthermore, with the help of user input, we will continue to refine and improve the app by identifying any deficiencies (we didn’t anticipate that someone might seek sacramental absolution from a computer graphic!), which we quickly correct,” Check concluded.

Kudos to Catholic Answers leaders for so quickly realizing they made a huge mistake and for listening to their fans and going back for a retool. Vestments are not a costume for entertainment purposes. While not used by all Christian denominations, vestments do refer to sacred things and shouldn’t be treated as trivialities.

The sooner the West remembers that sacred things are sacred for a reason and that they should be treated as such, the sooner our cultural collapse will slow… and maybe even reverse.

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Catholic Org. Strips AI ‘Priest’ of Clerical Vestments After Massive Christian Outcry - Long Island, NY (1)

Catholic Org. Strips AI ‘Priest’ of Clerical Vestments After Massive Christian Outcry - Long Island, NY (2024)

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