Catholic chat bot: Putting AI at the service of the Church


TECHNOLOGY: Legionary of Christ Father Michael Baggot, a professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum, speaks during a forum on AI and the Catholic Church at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome April 18, 2024. (Credit: CNS photo/Justin McLellan)

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By Justin McLellan

VATICAN CITY — Before converting to Catholicism, Michael Baggot took his questions about faith and the Church to the first place many people go with their questions: the internet.

Now a member of the Legionaries of Christ and a priest, Father Baggot spoke of “how important those online resources were for me in providing information and guidance, and how instrumental in God’s providence they were to bring me eventually to baptism, to confirmation and to first holy Communion.”

But some 20 years after his conversion, the internet has radically changed. Artificially intelligent chatbots are becoming a normal means for accessing information while omnipresent algorithms largely determine the type of content people encounter online in search results and on social media. And the Catholic Church is taking notice.

Pope Francis focused his messages for the Church’s 2024 celebrations of World Peace Day and World Communications Day on the use of artificial intelligence. He wrote that AI-powered systems “can help to overcome ignorance and facilitate the exchange of information,” but he voiced his concern that such a rapid digital revolution can imprison people in “echo chambers” and leave humanity “adrift in a mire of confusion, prey to the interests of the market or of the powers that be.”

Speaking at a conference April 18, Father Baggot said that while Catholics must have “an awareness of human sin and the capacity to misuse technology” when thinking about artificial intelligence, they must also have “confidence in grace, in redemption and the ability to harness these technologies well.”

To that end, the conference at the Pontifical Oriental Institute, a Jesuit-run academic institution dedicated to studying Eastern Christianity, explored how the Church can leverage the power of artificially intelligent tools to its benefit, showcasing two products developed by Longbeard — a digital services company focused on Catholic-related projects.

MagisteriumAI, a large language model with an interface similar to ChatGPT’s, seeks to synthesize and explain Church teaching in natural language while drawing from more than 5,700 magisterial documents and over 2,300 Catholic theological and philosophical works. The other tool, Vulgate, allows scholars to upload entire libraries onto a platform, converting the contents into data that can be easily searched for, translated and summarized.

“When we saw ChatGPT out there and we learned that Catholics were using it to ask doctrinal questions and things like that, it drove us to then say, can we do this better than ChatGPT?” Matthew Sanders, CEO of Longbeard, said at the forum.

He demonstrated how MagisteriumAI responded to several different queries posed to it in different languages. One question he asked was, “What does the Church say about Islam?” to which MagisteriumAI responded, “The Church regards Muslims with esteem” before elaborating further and citing six magisterial documents that users could read by following the links.

“When ChatGPT first came out, one of the concerns was it was generating responses but not providing transparency as to where that generation came from,” Sanders said. “One of the first things we tried to do when we designed this AI system was to make sure there is transparency so that whatever answer is being generated by the system, you can see where that generation is coming from.”

He added that the MagisteriumAI team had implemented a number of techniques to improve the tool’s accuracy by greatly cutting down on its rate of “hallucinations” — when AI systems provide incorrect and sometimes incoherent information in an effort to provide a response at any cost, even when they do not have the information available to do so.

Still, Sanders noted that the product is still in its beta stage and needs improvement although it is already being used in 150 countries by people ranging from bishops to high school students.

Catholic News Service asked him about the potential risks of entrusting complicated pastoral questions to an AI system. For example, when asked whether a Catholic priest can bless people in a same-sex relationship, MagisteriumAI answered “no,” despite recent guidance from the Vatican allowing priests to discern when such a blessing could be opportune.

MagisteriumAI is “a tool that can be useful in some cases and in others, not so much,” Sanders said. “All of its answers may not be perfect; if it seems like it’s imperfect, you should talk to a human being.”

He added that it is particularly important to educate students and communities in the use of AI tools such as MagisteriumAI “so they understand what it is and what it is not.”

Discussing MagisteriumAI as an evangelization tool, Father Baggot said, “When you start to explore the Church’s resources, you can be very easily intimidated by a long list of Latin titles, but with a system like MagisteriumAI you can enter into a kind of dialogue, and you can begin right with the questions that interest you most and that will eventually open you up to the broader picture.”

“I see this as a great tool to first engage and give a kind of safe space, if you will, where people can explore these issues that they would never bring up to friends or family or other colleagues at a certain moment in their life,” he said, noting that after online information gathering people will eventually want to talk to a human being about their questions.

“It’s meant to bring us to another in-person experience,” he said.

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