VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A new Catholic program using artificial intelligence, Magisterium AI, is promising to revolutionize academic research in Catholic education and holds the potential to disrupt long-held doctrines and beliefs.
Created by the U.S.-based company Longbeard, Magisterium AI uses artificial intelligence technology like the one used by the now-famous ChatGPT to provide information for users on everything relating to Catholic doctrine, teachings and Canon law. Unlike other AI programs, which have access to vast swaths of ever-evolving data, the information used by Magisterium AI is limited to official church documents and is carefully curated.
“This way, it avoids the pitfalls of the use of AI,” said Fr. Philip Larrey, who teaches philosophy at the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome and is chair of the Product Advisory Board at Magisterium AI, in an interview with Religion News Service on Wednesday (Aug. 23).
Artificial intelligence programs can sometimes “hallucinate,” meaning they will assemble incorrect or partially incorrect information in order to provide an answer to a query. “Magisterium is trained to only use official documents of the Catholic Church, which is a very small, consistent and narrow documentation,” Larrey said.
“It’s never going to give you a wrong or false answer,” he added.
With a simple interface, where users can type in questions that will be answered by the artificial intelligence, Magisterium AI hopes to be a helpful service for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. The project can be used by priests seeking to write a homily, canon lawyers looking for the latest updates and researchers wishing to access Catholic documents from the ancient past.
Magisterium AI is already used in 125 countries and is currently available in 10 languages, but its creators hope to add even more. Every day, more information is being entered into the program’s database drawn directly from Catholic resources.
Fr. David Nazar, the rector of the Pontifical Institute for Eastern Churches, believes AI technology has the power to revolutionize research in Catholic academia by providing scholars with access to large amounts of data. Eastern Christian Churches spread all over the world, from Russia to Ethiopia and India, rely on extremely ancient and diversified documents.
Magisterium AI “shortens the time and refines your research,” Nazar told RNS in an interview Wednesday. Research that has been ongoing for 10 years over 400 documents and manuscripts could be done in a month or a week, he explained.
The institute is currently digitizing 1,000 documents from its archives and adding them to the Magisterium AI database. This includes one of the largest collections of Syriac manuscripts outside of Syria, which were brought over to Rome after the start of the war in the Middle Eastern country. While the program has the scope of “preserving and researching history with precision,” Nazar said, it also has the potential to be a powerful tool for promoting ecumenism and addressing ancient doctrinal questions.
“The early church councils were as concerned about defining principles — the number of the Trinity, the nature of Jesus etc. — as they were about excluding false expressions of the faith,” he said. The varied amount of languages and cultures that convened at these ancient councils meant participants “often misunderstood one another, and some people were called heretics for the wrong reason.”
Nazar brought up the example of Nestorius, a bishop who was deemed a heretic after the Council of Ephesus in 431. Research conducted at the institute over years led to the conclusion that Nestorius was actually largely misunderstood in his beliefs and wrongly condemned. This understanding promoted communion between the Catholic Church and his remaining followers today.
With tools like Magisterium AI this kind of research could happen in much less time, Nazar said. He acknowledged that as more data from the church’s vast and ancient documentation is inserted into the program, researchers might uncover uncomfortable facts about the church’s doctrine on hot-button issues like married priests and the role of women in the church.
“The truth shall set you free!” Nazar said, quoting Jesus. For the scholar, there is a consolation in finding out that people were wrong, and that is much more valuable than “neurotic concerns over words.”
Beyond changing how research is conducted in Catholic schools, Magisterium AI also holds potential for canon lawyers, who can use it to access the latest developments. Pope Francis, for example, has issued a massive number of Motu Proprio, which are changes to the wording of the 1983 Book of Canon Law, during his pontificate. Canon lawyers can view the most updated laws thanks to the AI-powered program.
It can also offer support for priests writing their homilies for Mass, by offering information about church teaching and commentary by experts from the past and present. Larrey said that despite the bad reputation often attributed to artificial intelligence, he believes such programs have a potential for good.
“Is this going to replace canon lawyers or teachers? No, it’s going to be a help,” he said. “Fortunately they won’t substitute a priest so I think I’m safe!”
While Pope Francis has acknowledged the advantages and positive aspects of artificial intelligence, he has also warned against the potential pitfalls and consequences this technology holds, especially for the most vulnerable people in society.
This month, the pope announced that “Artificial Intelligence and Peace” will be the theme of World Day of Peace on Jan. 1, to promote dialogue and ethical reflection on the question of AI.