What role might artificial intelligence play in catechesis?

Q: Can an artificial intelligence program licitly receive the Sacrament of Holy Orders? And regardless, what role do you think AI might be able to play in catechesis, if any? (Bridgeport, CT)

A: No, an artificial intelligence program cannot receive the sacrament of Holy Orders (or any other sacrament, for that matter). Sacraments can only be received by humans, as only human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore only human beings are capable of becoming more closely configured to Christ, healed and redeemed from sins or ordained to serve God's people as an image of Christ in the sacramental priesthood.

In contrast, an artificial intelligence program is fundamentally just a very sophisticated computer application. While there have been some interesting philosophical and scientific discussions about whether it might be possible for AI to eventually become advanced to the point of becoming dangerous, or to the point of developing something that resembles self-aware consciousness, this would not change the fact that AI is something entirely man-made and lacking the human immortal soul that only God can create.

An AI creation cannot be validly ordained, meaning that any fanciful attempts at "ordaining" a computer program simply wouldn't work. And although our current Code of Canon Law never discusses AI explicitly, my thought is that it would also be illicit -- meaning not permitted by law -- for any bishop to attempt to ordain an AI program in earnest.

As a corollary, an AI application also cannot confer any sacraments validly. As we learned from the recent short-lived Catholic AI "Father Justin" program, even if an AI program "listens" to one's sins and generates the words of absolution, this would not constitute a valid confession. And although a lay person (or even a non-Catholic) can validly and licitly baptize in an emergency, if there was a hypothetical AI robot that could pour water while broadcasting the baptismal formula over speakers, this would not result in a valid baptism.

But to address the second part of your question, I think AI could certainly have some legitimate catechetical uses. The Catholic community has already benefited from things like search engines for the Catechism of the Catholic Church or other magisterial documents for many years. In a similar vein, an AI program based on the catechism could potentially share the riches of the catechism in an even more user-friendly way.

That being said, I also think we need to be realistic about what AI can and cannot do for our catechetical efforts. For one thing, while AI can share information on a given topic in perhaps a more accurate or more efficient way than would be possible for many humans, nothing can replace the value of a person-to-person relationship in evangelizing and handing on the faith. Human beings can bear a personal witness to the reality of Christ in their life, which is something that no commuter program -- no matter how sophisticated -- will ever be able to do.

Additionally, while I myself am not a computer scientist, my understanding is that AI, like all computer programs, can essentially only repeat information that it has been "told." AI might be able to search the internet in general, and it might be able to recognize patterns in highly sensitive ways, but it will lack the creativity and intuitive insight of a human mind.

So, for example, while AI might be able to quickly generate the relevant catechetical facts in response to a question about Catholic doctrine, AI will not be able to take into account all the pastoral nuances of why a person is asking such a question and what information is really going to be helpful to them in their life of faith. Sometimes bare facts are what is needed in answer to a question, but an experienced priest or skilled human catechist will be better able to pick up on the "questions behind the question."

- Canonist Jenna Marie Cooper is a consecrated virgin, a practicing canon lawyer, and columnist for OSV News.