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As Artificial Intelligence Invades Culture, Church Voices Say It Shouldn’t Be Used Behind the Lectern

ChatGPT has gained over 100 million users and in recent months garnered some not-so-great headlines after students used it to improve their work.

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Famed 20th-century author G.K. Chesterton once invoked the task of “writing one’s own love letters or blowing one’s own nose” to say that there are certain things man should do for himself. According to Father David Mowry, that remains true for homily writing, as well. 

[RELATED: We Asked an Artificial Intelligence Chatbot to Write a Homily and This is What it Came Back With]

“There are certain things preachers should just do themselves, which includes write their own homily, and even if they’re bad, they’re theirs … and it should come out of that individual wrestling and struggle with Scripture and tradition and where God is at work in the midst of community so that an authentic sharing of faith can then happen,” Father Mowry, the Ernest and Marilyn Waud Chair of Homiletics at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake Mundelein Seminary in Illinois told The Tablet. 

Father Mowry’s perspective begs a question at a time when the use of artificial intelligence, in particular ChatGPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer), has gone mainstream: Can it be used to write a Catholic homily? 

The answer is technically, yes, but Father Mowry and other homiletics and Scripture experts argue there isn’t a scenario where it should be used. Simply put, Father Mowry said AI “isn’t acceptable in homiletics method.” 

ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence tool — a chatbot — that can carry out human-like conversations with the user, answer questions, write essays, compose emails, etc., through its machine learning algorithms and vast amounts of stored data. The program was developed by OpenAI, a for-profit research foundation funded largely by Microsoft. 

ChatGPT has gained over 100 million users and in recent months garnered some not-so-great headlines after students used it to improve their work, leading New York City to ban access to it in public schools. It’s also been alleged that the AI has a left-wing bias. 

It doesn’t agree with church teaching, either. The Vatican’s Homiletic Directory states that “the preacher must make the Word of God central to his own spiritual life, and his spiritual poverty as to invite the Holy Spirit as a principal agent.” 

Father John Cush, a professor of dogmatic theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York and the editor & chief of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, took it a step further, calling the AI soulless. 

“So the fact is an AI, ‘intelligent’ as it might be, isn’t capable of entering into a relationship with God,” Father Cush said. “It doesn’t have intellect, it doesn’t have a soul. It’s not what we call a person, so a homily would never then be a reflection done in faith.” 

Another ChatGPT headline at the end of January was religious-based – A New York Rabbi wrote a sermon with it that he then delivered to his congregation. He was the first known rabbi to do so. 

There hasn’t been a documented instance of ChatGPT being used to write and deliver a Catholic homily. 

Father Richard Veras, director of pastoral formation and professor of homiletics at Saint Joseph’s Seminary in New York, is against the idea. He said ChatGPT “overrides the humanity of the preacher.” 

“Many of the church documents speak of the importance of prayer in preparing your homily, so it requires a priest to be prayerfully looking over the Scripture and having knowledge of his particular people in his parish,” Father Veras said. “I don’t see how AI in whatever it’s doing, there’s not a human being who’s open to God, there’s not going to be the particular relationship between priests and parishioners.” 

Ethics aside, The Tablet tested ChatGPT to see if it could write a homily, asking it to “write a Catholic homily on this week’s Gospel, Mt 4:1- 11.” Matthew 4:1-11 was the Gospel passage for Sunday, Feb. 26. About a minute and a half later, ChatGPT produced a 427-word homily titled “Temptation of Jesus.” 

The passages it cited were verified as accurate. 

The AI-produced homily led with “My dear brothers and sisters in Christ” and closed with “May God bless you all.” It explains what parishioners can learn from Jesus remaining faithful to God after he was led by the Holy Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil: 

“[Jesus] showed us that even in the face of temptation, we can overcome it through prayer, fasting, and faith in God,” the ChatGPT homily says. “As we begin this season of Lent, let us follow the example of Jesus and prepare ourselves for our own earthly ministry. Let us pray, fast, and seek God’s will in all things so that we may overcome our own temptations and grow closer to him.” 

But Father Mowry noted that regardless of how good that, or any ChatGPT-generated homily, is, its use will also create an inevitable divide between the priest and parishioners. He gave the hypothetical situation where a parishioner asks the priest for help with a particular situation in their life related to a recent homily, but because the homily was generated by AI, the priest doesn’t have much of an answer. 

“If the preacher hasn’t done the actual work and wrestled with that idea, how it comes out of Scripture, there’s not a lot that can be offered in that individual circumstance,” Father Mowry explained. 

Everyone The Tablet spoke to said they haven’t heard of any priests using ChatGPT to write homilies, nor has it come up among their students, and they don’t necessarily expect it to. However, they acknowledged they can see the temptation arising for some preachers, no different than priests turning to other tools to help write their weekly homily. 

Father Mowry highlighted situations where “lazy preachers, overworked preachers, burnt out preachers will reach for the easy, quick solution.” 

Still, he said there’s a distinct difference between ChatGPT and other homily writing tools. 

“In the case of, say, a homily service, whoever is writing that we would hope that at the very least has an authentic love for Scripture, for the Church, and for God’s people, and delivers a message crafted from that sense of love into the hands of someone else for them to deliver,” Father Mowry said. 

“But with AI chatbot … who has no inner life, no relational connection to the eventual recipient of the word, it is simply responding mechanically to the prompts that are given, and there’s no sense of communion, no sense of love that animates the crafting and composition of that text,” Father Mowry added.