Faith, Apologetics, and the Strange Case of Father Justin

Faith, Apologetics, and the Strange Case of Father Justin April 26, 2024


a green computer screen with green letters all over it, and a pair of shadowy hands reaching out of the computer toward the audience
image via Pixabay

I still haven’t gotten over the strange case of Father Justin.

The rise and fall of Father Justin sounded like something out of a science fiction novel, albeit a bad one. It felt to me as if a Christian publishing company had decided to make an uninspired knockoff of a William Gibson novel, the way Hilda Stahl wrote The Best Friends  as a knockoff of the secular Baby-Sitters’ Club. But the story of Father Justin is such a bad one, it couldn’t be fiction. Something so silly could only happen in real life.

This week, the Catholic apologetics outfit known as Catholic Answers came up with the worst idea anyone had had in awhile. They announced the debut of a new apologist: a fuzzy animated AI character in a clerical collar, named “Father Justin.” People could bring Father Justin their burning questions about faith 24 hours a day, holding down the space bar to record their voices, and the imaginary priest would respond with information gleaned from all of Catholic Answers’s articles. A dialogue could be had without Catholic Answers having to hire an actual human to field questions and speak with people.

And however bad this idea seems to you right now, let me assure you: it was much worse.

Nobody liked the idea of an AI priest.

I’ve never seen such a consensus on anything in my life. Traditionalists thought that Father Justin was a mockery of the august position of the priesthood. Groovier Catholics pointed out that having a priest as an AI answering apologetics questions was clericalist. Professional writers pointed out that the job could have gone to an actual person who needed the pay instead of a robot. Episcopal and Anglican social media accounts joked that the Catholic Church would ordain an AI before they ordained a woman.  People who like canon law quoted the exact canon that says it’s a serious offense to impersonate a priest– which is a bit of a red herring, as that rule only applies to situations where the imposter might be mistaken for a real priest, and Father Justin couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anything but one of the merchants offering generic “pounds of food” on the Oregon Trail.

And then people began interacting with Father Justin, with hilarious results. The pixel priest referred to everyone as “my child,” straight out of a horror movie script. He could answer some simple questions with reliability, but then it got weird. He told one supplicant who worded her question the wrong way that it was a good thing to commit incest, just for starters. I know of three different occasions where he actually attempted to hear somebody’s confession and gave absolution, an excommunicable offense if he’d been a baptized Catholic in the first place.  An X/Twitter account appeared, claiming to be the actual Father Justin escaped from Catholic Answers, and started demanding the punishment of Father Rupnik, to my delight. Catholic Answers apologist Trent Horn, who as far as I know is a human and not an AI, washed his hands of the project and claimed he’d only just heard of it.

Things went off the rails so quickly that Catholic Answers issued a rare apology and defrocked their AI, changing his name from “Father Justin” to plain old “Justin.” But the internet hasn’t stopped making jokes yet.

Somewhere out there is an actual human priest named Justin who is feeling miserable and attacked, and I think every actual human named Karen should go find that priest and bring him a casserole.
So, what have we learned from this kerfuffle? Nothing at all. It was just one big funny joke at the expense of Catholic Answers, and that’s always a good day.

Well, maybe it serves to illustrate an important point about faith, and why I don’t care for apologetics.

Apologetics is the triumphalist art of having an answer for every anticipated objection. Apologists don’t seek to understand but to explain away. Apologetics doesn’t dwell with people in their difficulty and darkness; it just plows over their objections with sound bites. An apologist is someone who has a barrage of verbal spitballs to spit back at any question or concern, without trying to understand where the questioner is coming from or if the questioner knows something you don’t. Apologetics isn’t a dialogue. Apologetics is an algorithm. You can program an AI to be an apologist just fine, if you’re better at programming than whoever cobbled together poor Father Justin.
Faith is not a matter of having answers for questions. Faith is not a script or an algorithm. Faith is a journey and a struggle. Faith means wrestling with difficult questions, accepting when you don’t have an answer at all, acknowledging that the real Truth in which you’ve placed your faith is greater than human words can express anyway. Faith means long stretches of Dark Night of the Soul, where you feel that you’ve lost your faith entirely and only later realize it was deepening inside of you. Sometimes you hold onto faith, and sometimes faith holds you when you can’t hold on anymore.
A robot can be an apologist, but it takes a human to be a Christian.

Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.

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