Robot Priests and Other Heresies

Robot Priests and Other Heresies
This week, an AI ‘priest’ sparked consternation among many Catholics, but it is just the latest in a long line of attempts to merge theology with technology. Ian Dunn explores why the idea of a robot priest won’t go away
Fr Justin

As laicisations go, it was quick. Barely a day after American Catholic apologetics website Catholic Answers released an AI-generated priest named Fr. Justin, who engaged in conversations with users to provide answers to questions about Catholicism, it demoted him to plain old Justin.

Fr Justin—a bearded priest whose digital avatar sat before the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Italy’s Perugia province—was named for St. Justin Martyr, a second-century convert and apologist, said Catholic Answers in its release.


Catholic Answers IT director Chris Costello stated that the app’s priest character was intended to “honour real-life priests and the role they play in people’s lives,” conveying an “authoritative yet approachable” demeanour that befits “the spirit and nature of the responses users can expect.”

However, following fierce criticism on social media regarding some of the answers given by the app’s character, Catholic Answers President Christopher Check announced that Fr Justin had been renamed as just “Justin.” Check noted that “many people have voiced concerns” about the decision to create a priest character for the app.

“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,” Check continued. “We have therefore decided to create, with all due speed, a new lay character for the app. We hope to have this AI apologist up within a week or so.”

As one “real” clerical wag quipped, “Artificial Intelligence priests? Buddy, I’ve barely got natural intelligence!”

But there was something about the idea of an AI priest that made Catholics of all types recoil. Catholicism, after all, is deeply concerned with the real presence. So anything that seems to compromise the real can set off alarms.


Certainly, a similar attempt to create a Catholic ‘artificial intelligence’ Magisterium AI attracted much less hostility when it launched last year. Although it seems in execution very similar to the late Fr Justin, Magisterium AI’s creators say it can answer “any questions” on Church teaching, practices, or other topics, helping to “explain complex theological, philosophical, and historical concepts in simple, understandable language.”

So it seems it’s less AI involvement than the concept of a priest separated from flesh and blood that makes us uncomfortable. Despite this, it’s an idea that won’t go away.

Last year saw the launch of SanTO: the world’s first-ever Catholic robot, according to its creator Gabriele Trovato. The robot stands at about 17 inches tall and has the appearance of a statue of a saint. A light-up halo encircles its head, glowing as its deep, digital voice echoes from a speaker.

Inside SanTO (Sanctified Theomorphic Operator) is a computer, microphone, sensors, and a facial recognition-enabled camera that allow it to interact with the faithful.

SanTO is powered by artificial intelligence, filled with information about the Church, and can respond to questions from worshippers—a bit like Catholic Alexa, its creator said.

Users of the SanTO robot in its native Poland have been surprisingly receptive, and an upgraded version of SanTO has a permanent exhibition at the Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw.


Other religions have gone further. A 400-year-old Buddhist Japanese temple brought in a robot named Mindar to preach sermons in 2019. It’s now a staple.

The adult-sized android, modelled after Kannon Bodhisattva, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, is programmed to deliver a 25-minute sermon on the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist scripture, while moving its torso, arms, and head.

A Lutheran Church in Germany also created the BlessU-2, a robot priest that delivers blessings in five languages as it raises its arms and beams light from its hands.

The robot’s head features moving eyebrows and a digital mouth that can alternate between serious and smiling. Users press the touchscreen chest to choose the type of prayer they’d like (encouragement or renewal), as well as their preference for a male or female voice. BlessU-2 speaks in German, English, French, Spanish, and Polish and even prints out its invocations.

One notable Catholic theologian, Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, who holds the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair of Theology at Villanova University, has said that Catholicism should “reimagine” the priesthood and consider robots instead of, or alongside, men.


“The Catholic notion would say the priest is ontologically changed upon ordination. Is that really true?” she said. “We have these fixed philosophical ideas and AI challenges those ideas—it challenges Catholicism to move toward a post-human priesthood.”

She said robotic priests would have certain advantages, including being incapable of committing sexual abuse.

All of which goes to show that while the idea of a robot priest may seem far-fetched, it is persistent.

Technology can and has fixed so many of the practical problems humans face that there will inevitably be attempts to use it to fix spiritual problems.

Surely if new and glittering advances can help the lame walk and the deaf speak, they can move us closer to spiritual enlightenment?

Alas, it seems unlikely. For AI, robots, and all points in between are tools, as useful and corruptible as the humans that use them. They cannot give us the love of a mother or the light of the Lord. And the attempt to try may ultimately distract us from what we truly need and what is truly real.