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Avatar priest ‘unfrocked’ after online blunders

30 April 2024

Users complained that the AI-generated priest was heretical


The Fr Justin avatar

The Fr Justin avatar

AN AI-generated priest has been “unfrocked” after complaints from users that the avatar was heretical and simulated performing some of the sacraments, including hearing confession online.

The AI priest, “Father Justin”, had been launched by the group Catholic Answers, a ministry based in the United States, to answer enquirers questions about the Roman Catholic faith.

The head of Catholic Answers, Jon Sorensen, said that it was “a neat idea” to find “cartoonish” ways to answer questions about Catholicism, and that it had tested it for six months before launch.

But, just one day after Fr Justin’s launch, he was laicised, and is now known simply as “Justin”. In an interview with the Roman Catholic news website The Pillar, Mr Sorensen said that he was willing to change the avatar’s look and backstory “to avoid scandalising people unnecessarily”, but said that he would continue to explore the use of AI.

“If we just don’t work on this at all — if we don’t try to learn about and understand AI — then we in the Catholic world fall behind on it,” he said.

The president of Catholic Answers, Christopher Check, explained on a blog the day after the launch of the avatar why Justin had lost his clerical collar.

He said: “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. 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.

“We have therefore decided to create, with all wary speed, a new lay character for the app. 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!”

The Pillar said that one of its journalists had tested the avatar, asking it questions about baptism and confession. It reported that, while Father Justin had answered some questions correctly, he had also simulated “a virtual confession, all the way to giving me absolution and a penance”.

And, when asked if a baby could be baptised with Gatorade (a sports drink) in an emergency: “Father Justin said yes — and of course that’s not true.”

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