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BREADCRUMB

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE AND THE CHURCH

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December 1, 2023

For information on enrollment and registration at Notre Dame Prep, an independent, Catholic, International Baccalaureate school, please visit the admissions section of our website here.

NOTE: A story in the latest edition of Today's Marists magazine, which was published in November by The Marist Fathers and Brothers of the United States Province, discusses artificial intelligence with the help of Fr. Leon Olszamowski, s.m., and Fr. Jim Strasz, s.m. Find the entire issue on the Society of Mary's website here.

The explosion of artificial intelligence (AI) and the possibility that it will one day surpass human intelligence - often referred to as the singularity - is upending many aspects of everyday life. But what about faith? Pope Francis and other members of the clergy, including two Marists, weigh in on AI and what it means for the Church and humankind.

How can AI assist our clergy, religious and the laity as the needs grow and their numbers fall? AI images credit: Art for this article was created with Midjourney, a generative artificial intelligence imaging program.


In January of this year, Pope Francis received signatories of the Rome Call for AI Ethics, developed and promoted by the Pontifical Academy for Life and Renaissance Foundation.

The Rome Call for AI Ethics was a document developed by the Pontifical Academy for Life, Microsoft, IBM, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO, a specialized agency of the United Nations) and the Ministry of Innovation, a part of the Italian Government in Rome, in February 2020 to promote an ethical approach to artificial intelligence (AI). The idea behind it was to promote a sense of shared responsibility among international organizations, governments, institutions and the private sector in an effort to create a future in which digital innovation and technological progress grant humanity a true centrality.

Essentially the document called for the development of AI that serves every person as well as humanity as a whole; that respects the dignity of the human person, so that every individual can benefit from the advances of technology; and that does not have as its only goal greater profit or the gradual replacement of people in the workplace.

Greater good over greater profits. Beneficence versus largesse. And what could go wrong when we have his Holiness himself looking out for us as this huge wave of new technology is threatening to upend nearly every aspect of life? Surely humanity and more specifically, Christianity, have nothing to worry about, right?

Fr. James Strasz, s.m., director of Marist Way at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Pontiac, Michigan, acknowledges that Pope Francis takes his typically optimistic view of the situation, but that he also stressed the responsible use of this new technology. But is it all enough?

Fr. Leon Olszamowski, s.m., who is corporate president and a founder of Notre Dame Prep, and Fr. Jim Strasz, s.m., director of Marist Way at NDP, discuss how the emergence of artificial intelligence can affect the church today and in the future.


“The Pope said he’s convinced that dialogue between believers and non-believers on fundamental questions of ethics, science and art and on the search for the meaning of life is the path to peace and to integral human development,” Strasz noted. “He also talked about acting ethically with this relatively new technology. The Pope wanted to encourage and make sure that AI respects the intrinsic dignity of every man and woman.”

To help make Pope Francis’ point, Strasz recounted a trip he took several years ago to San Francisco, California, which many believe is the epicenter of the world’s artificial intelligence movement.

“The city’s probably got the largest concentration of computer engineers in the world,” Strasz said. “The dilemma is then how do you get those people to act in rational and ethical ways that respect the dignity of each person. When we were in the city, the home to all of these bright people, there were homeless people lying all over the place. I mean literally all over the city.”

He said residents were just stepping over people and going about their day-to-day.

“So will AI help those people?” he asked. “Will those engineers see that they have a moral obligation to somehow help these desperate people with this powerful AI? Or will they just continue to step over them on their way to their million-dollar homes and condos?”

Focus on the human person

In a story published in July 2023 by the National Catholic Register (NCR), Father Philip Larrey, a leading Catholic expert in the area of technology, also discussed AI and one of its more notable large language models, ChatGPT.

The U.S.-born priest ministers and teaches at the Pontifical Lateran University (PLU) in Rome, Italy, and is the author of Connected World: From Automated Work to Virtual Wars: The Future, By Those Who Are Shaping It and Artificial Humanity, among other books. He holds the chair of logic and epistemology at the PLU and has worked closely with Vatican officials who have organized a series of high-level conferences on AI in the past two years.

“From the perspective of the Catholic Church, as we use technologies like ChatGPT and others, we need to keep the focus on the human person. ‘Human-centered AI’ is becoming a motto in the Church’s view on this issue,” Larrey said in the NCR article. “The Institute for Technology, Ethics and Culture at Santa Clara University recently published a handbook called ‘Ethics in the Age of Disruptive Technologies: An Operational Roadmap,’ which provides a very good analysis of these issues from a Catholic point of view.

How will artificial intelligence help the Church be a force for good? How can we ensure that AI respects the intrinsic dignity of every man, woman and child, as Pope Francis said?


“When engineers or the CEOs of large companies come to Rome or invite me to San Francisco, California they say, ‘We can’t just sit down and talk about this stuff; there has to be some kind of framework.’”

In fact, Larrey added in the July 13th article the Catholic intellectual tradition has been looking at such problems for centuries, and “my objective is to translate that intellectual tradition into words that the engineers and CEOs can understand. The fundamental Aristotelian and Thomistic framework of anthropology, cosmology and human nature is an excellent instrument for approaching these issues.”

He also said education and critical thinking will be essential in understanding how we can benefit from these technologies in the future. “I am convinced that as a human race we must use the technology in order to flourish and achieve our goals. That is my hope and prediction for the future.”

Artificial intelligence and utilitarianism

For Fr. Leon Olszamowski, s.m., corporate president and a founder of NDP, the hubbub about AI is a bit like the 19th century emergence of utilitarianism as a legitimate school of thought.

“Utilitarianism, and later, the philosophy of voluntarism (human will trumps human intellect), which became popular in certain quarters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is sometimes characterized as ‘my way is the right way and forget everybody else’s way,’” Olszamowski said. “But voluntarism also draws to itself some Christian-like elements of belief, and throws in a little Aristotle, too, to present itself as a truly rational way of thinking - presenting itself as ‘a will-dominated wolf in intellectual sheep’s clothing.’”

According to Olszamowski, AI basically is “ask any question we want,” but can only offer what seems like a sensible answer to questions.

Will we recognize our houses of worship in the future if AI is behind their design and architecture? 


“My experience is that it is pretty good at answering historical, fact-based questions, but often fails miserably on the ‘why’ questions,” he said. “And that’s because it’s not human, and its programming is sorting through a conglomeration of historical facts.

“It cannot speak to emotion. It cannot speak to will. It cannot speak to the ethical or moral motive behind our questions or the ethical/moral motives behind the historical facts it draws from,” Olszamowski adds. “What it lacks is a true understanding of the emotional, volitional and intellectual posture behind the question.”

He also adds that AI often comes down to simple linguistic nuance and personal history. “The person who is asking AI the question is asking it from their knowledge of the English language, or whichever language they’re using, and the perspective lens of their own historical background.”

The biggest drawback with AI, as Olszamowski sees it, is that it cannot read or experience emotions, which is extremely important for nuance.

“For example, in our Marist schools, we’re supposed to think, act, feel and judge like Mary,” he said. “If I asked AI how Mary thought, felt, and judged, it would be able to say, ‘here’s what scripture says,’ but it wouldn’t have any idea of how Mary felt about her son. It has no clue of what emotionality and shared humanity is about. They are concepts not built into it and I seriously doubt they ever will be.”

In service to humankind

In October of 2022, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, formally signed on to the Rome Call for AI Ethics The university said that it did so to support efforts to promote an ethical approach to AI and to advance a sense of shared responsibility among international organizations, governments, institutions and the private sector, and to create a future in which digital innovation and technological progress are focused on a shared humanity.

John T. McGreevy, the university’s provost, said that Notre Dame has long recognized the importance of incorporating responsibility and accountability into technology.

“As the world’s technological capabilities increase in areas such as AI, we will continue to identify new ways in which we can advance knowledge in service to humankind,” McGreevy said.

"From the perspective of the Catholic Church, as we use technologies like ChatGPT and others, we need to keep the focus on the human person," said a leading Catholic expert in the area of technology.


Olszamowski agrees that AI has tremendous technological potential for the planet and for humankind.

“If it’s used purely as a tool - a helpful tool in certain areas - I say let’s bring it on. They’re using it in art in beautiful ways, too, as one example. On a recent PBS show, there was this artistic piece created by AI that keeps changing continuously because it’s being fed new information all the time and it’s beautiful to watch. But, please, let’s not let AI make moral decisions. We struggle enough in making moral decisions as human beings - now we’re going to allow this thing to make moral decisions for expediency’s sake? I don’t think so.

“But, for the sake of an argument, let’s suppose one believes that AI is God, and that person has a question on a deeply personal issue surrounding moral clarity. How should AI respond? If I was AI, I would respond, ‘I am not God and I can’t help you with that issue.’ Which is exactly the way I would like to see AI work in this case. No more, no less.”

For information on enrollment and registration at Notre Dame Prep, an independent, Catholic, International Baccalaureate school, please visit the admissions section of our website here.

Comments or questions? mkelly@ndpma.org

Follow Notre Dame on Twitter at @NDPMA.

About Notre Dame Preparatory School 
Notre Dame Preparatory School is a private, Catholic, independent, coeducational day school located in Oakland County. Notre Dame Preparatory School's upper school enrolls students in grades nine through twelve and has been named one of the nation's best 50 Catholic high schools (Acton Institute) four times since 2005. Notre Dame Prep's middle and lower schools enroll students in pre-kindergarten through grade eight. All three schools are International Baccalaureate "World Schools." NDPMA is conducted by the Marist Fathers and Brothers and is accredited by the Independent Schools Association of the Central States and the National Association of Independent Schools. For more on Notre Dame Preparatory School, visit the school’s home page at www.ndpma.org.