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Nun pitches gender-neutral robot priests to solve problems in Catholic Church

by Cara Bentley

The robot Mindar can recite a pre-programmed sermon but does not have artificial intelligence yet.

Catholic theologian and nun, Sister Ilia Delio, told the Vox website she might be open to having robotic priests because of the sexual abuse crisis in the Church.

She said: "Take the Catholic Church. It's very male, very patriarchal, and we have this whole sexual abuse crisis. So would I want a robot priest? Maybe!

"A robot can be gender-neutral. It might be able to transcend some of those divides and be able to enhance community in a way that's more liberating."

She joked though that robot priests would be better suited to the Protestant church as "the Catholic notion would say the priest is ontologically changed upon ordination".

"We have these fixed philosophical ideas and AI challenges those ideas - it challenges Catholicism to move toward a post-human priesthood."

Premier's head of digital theology, Rev Dr Pete Philips, who has a PhD in John's Gospel and lectures about the Bible in the digital age, explained that Christians have to ask themselves whether the priest's role is replaceable or not, comparing it to the replacing of staff at tills in supermarkets.

He said: "The question is, do we want that to be what a priest does? It strikes me that the ministers in our churches don't do that kind of thing. It almost takes us back to pre-reformation when Catholic priests simply did masses to order, because somebody paid them to do it. They were just automated machines, automated scripts and I'm not really sure that's where we are with the church.

"That's not what a celebration of the Lord's Supper is, it's not what a priest does in the world today. Priests sit at people's bedsides when they're dying or pray for them or share the good news with them or fight for justice, or go out and on the climate strike, or whatever.

"They're real people who witness to us the presence of a God who was incarnate in Jesus and I think the idea of a robot doing all of that just kind of misses the whole point."

Rev Dr Philips said it also taints people's view of God, suggesting a robot can act like God and be a witness to his character, suggesting God is like a robot.

However, he said that most importantly: "they too need the Holy Spirit within them, working through them and in them and being empowered by the Holy Spirit. We're certainly not at the stage yet where AI have any form of consciousness, or could seek to actually reach out to God in order to make the bridge secure on the other side."

Sister's Delio argued that a robot would mean there could be no abuse.

Speaking about this idea of a robot being better because they are not subject to sin, Rev Dr Philips said: "An AI could be without sin but that like saying that a tomato is without sin and a tomato doesn't have the capability to sin, it doesn't have a capability to be tempted or to fall.

"At the moment, AI don't either but the big thing is that artificial intelligence is written by sinful human beings, it's coded and we're finding more and more that actually the prejudices that we have in our own society have been replicated in lots and lots of AI models. So, there's a prejudice against people of colour in America receiving a mortgage through automated machines, which were written so we could get rid of that prejudice.

"The fact that we've created these robots or these AI machine means that they kind of take on our sinfulness as well. So the idea of them being without sin is wrong."

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