Theology and the machine


As AI proponents aim to make inroads for language learning models in communities around the world, developers this month announced an AI project they say could be a “game changer for the Church.”

The developers of Magisterium AI trained an AI robot on a database of 456 Church documents.

These include: Scripture the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Code of Canon Law, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 90 encyclicals, seven apostolic constitutions, and 26 apostolic exhortations.

The result of all that training, according to Matthew Sanders of Longbeard, a digital marketing and design agency connected to the project, is that the Magisterium AI:

“doesn’t hallucinate (make stuff up), and it also provides citations so you know where its answers were generated from.”

The project, which Sanders says can prepare homilies, is backed by Fr. David Nazar, rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute, who serves as chair of the AI’s “scholarly advisory committee.”

Sanders said by email that while “there is a great deal of fear around AI … there are many who feel it could be a powerful tool to share truth.”

The Magisterium AI project is available online, but in a beta-testing form at present.

At The Pillar, we wondered just how good it really is — and whether it could answer questions as well as a seminary professor and a working canon lawyer.

So we put it to the test.

For theology, we asked Magisterium AI to answer the same questions as Angela Franks.

She’s a professor of theology at St. John’s Seminary in Boston, with specializations in “theology of the body, the New Evangelization, the Trinity, Christology, and the thought of John Paul II and Hans Urs von Balthasar.”

For canon law, we asked the robot to answer the same questions as Timothy Olson, JCL, who is chancellor of the Diocese of Fargo, North Dakota, and an instructing judge in Fargo’s diocesan tribunal.

We asked each expert to spend less than an hour answering the questions we gave, while the Magisterium AI answered each question in usually 1-2 minutes.

We told both the machine and the experts to answer each question in just 4-5 sentences.

We’ll show you how the machine and the experts answered the questions, and give you a few notes to ponder. (Nota bene: We are not including the machine’s footnotes, but we note that it has given us 3-5 footnoted references on at least every question.)

But is the machine up to snuff? Should theologians and canonists be excited for a new tool — or worried about job security? Is the AI on the right track?

Well, we’ll tell you what we think, especially about who answered each question better. But we admit our own biases — we’re old fashioned, and we’re probably pulling for the people here.

So are we right?

You’ll have to decide that for yourself.


What is baptism, theologically?

The machine:
Baptism, theologically, is a sacrament that signifies the forgiveness of sins and the cleansing of the soul. It is a participation in the paschal mystery of Christ, where the believer is configured to Jesus Christ and becomes a new creation.

Through baptism, one is incorporated into the Church, receives the promised Holy Spirit, and is justified.

Baptism is the sacrament of faith par excellence, where faith and baptism are intimately linked. It is a gift from God that is received through the Church, and it marks the beginning of a new life in Christ.

Dr. Franks:
CCC 1213 tells us: “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua), and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.’”

Pillar verdict:
The machine gave a pretty good answer here, and mentioned more things – like the Holy Spirit – than did Dr. Franks. But the machine also seemed to do a strange bit of question begging: saying that baptism is the sacrament of faith, where faith and baptism are intimately linked. Baptism is, indeed, the sacrament of faith — but does the AI’s sentence mean anything?

Dr. Franks’ answer is a straight excerpt from the Catechism, and a pretty clear one. We hope on future questions, she’ll answer in her own words, but we’ll give her this one. Read more

  • First published in The Pillar. Republished with permission.
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