Inside St Teresa’s, a Catholic church in Dublin (Simon Roughneen)

A popular US-based Catholic publisher has been forced to fire an AI-based “priest” it debuted last week, after the bot “theologian” was quickly found to be giving unorthodox replies to readers’ questions.

After answers that included mixing up “commute” with “communion” and giving the go-ahead for Baptisms to be carried out using Gatorade, Catholic Answers announced that its new ‘Father Justin’ is to be replaced, first by a character named “Justin” and later by another as-yet-unnamed “lay” AI bot.

Catholic Answers, which publishes books and podcasts, describes itself as “a media ministry that serves Christ by explaining and defending the Catholic faith” through apologetics, which are described by Encyclopedia Britannica as “the intellectual defense of the truth of the Christian religion.”

Denying that the move amounted to a laicization – or l-AI-cization, even – after Father Justin’s ill-fated and short-lived ministry, Catholic Answers said it wanted to stick with the organisation’s mission of giving “sound answers to questions about the Catholic faith” while making use of “the benefits of artificial intelligence.”

Part of the problem with Father Justin, it seems, was that people were asking it to do things it was not “trained” for and which can only be done in real life by a priest, such as hearing confessions and being absolved from sins.

“We didn’t anticipate someone would seek sacramental absolution from a computer graphic,” said Christopher Check, president of Catholic Answers.

Recent advances in AI have fuelled concerns about job losses across a swathe of industries. However, Catholic Answers said its use of AI is intended to supplement, not replace, the work done by its human apologists, who it said are sometimes inundated with queries.

The Catholic Answers bot-theologian follows the setting-up last year of Magisterium.com, an AI-based effort backed by the Pontifical Oriental Institute (PIO) which aims to make Catholic Church teaching “accessible like never before.” That bot, however, was quickly accused of “rookie errors.”

Catholic Answers’ defrocking of its AI clergyman came as the Italian government and The Holy See announced that Pope Francis would participate in an upcoming Group of 7 (G7) meeting, taking part in a session about AI.

“I am convinced that the Pope’s presence will provide a decisive contribution to defining a regulatory, ethical, and cultural framework for artificial intelligence,” said Georgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister.

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