AI and evangelization

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By Patrick Schmadeke
Evangelization in the world today

Schmadeke

Since Artificial Intelligence (AI) came onto the popular scene with ChatGPT, the topic has been addressed from various angles: job, national and personal security, the arts, reviewing contract language, medicine, stock market investing and student integrity. Perhaps not surprisingly, AI has been heralded as both savior and end of humanity, both solution to our problems and source of doom. While the debate continues about the promise and peril AI presents, no one is debating that AI is here to stay.

What is also here to stay is our mission of evangelization. Its goal is straightforward: get the word out about Jesus. Catholics use the language of “encounter” and “accompaniment” to describe how evangelization is done. We encounter one another on the road to Emmaus and accompany each other along life’s journey. This is a relational, patient, long-term approach. Faith happens in the context of community and very few relationships can or should evolve quickly.

What has come on the scene quickly, however, are at least two Catholic AI instruments intended to aid evangelization. Both were developed by Catholic organizations and both, I worry, are birthed from a fundamental misunderstanding of evangelization. On one level, AI cannot be a substitute for evangelization. AI cannot encounter, AI cannot accompany. On another level, we wonder, can AI   be a helpful tool to employ in the process of evangelization? Since AI cannot encounter or accompany, AI in evangelization seems misplaced. The fitting metaphor is not so much like using a hammer to tighten a screw, where one simply has the wrong tool in hand. Rather, this seems more like using a thermometer to measure the hypotenuse of the pink penguin sitting at your kitchen table.

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For Christians, the incarnation is essential to understanding the human situation. In his first press conference, the Diocese of Davenport’s Bishop-elect Dennis Walsh said that ministry is 90% just showing up and caring about the person in front of you. Evangelization requires showing up; it requires incarnation. AI can’t do that. In a world saturated in digital technology, T.S. Eliot’s line from “The Dry Salvages” is a helpful reminder: “The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.” A Christian understanding of the human person, in light of the incarnation, recognizes the radical openness of humans and communities in God. C.S. Lewis conveys this: “how monotonously alike all the great tyrants and conquerors have been; how gloriously different are the saints.” Tyrants, dictators, totalitarians are predictable. We are not surprised by their greed, pride, and disregard for life. The lives of saints, however, are utterly unpredictable, joyfully beguiling. The same is true of Jesus’ parables (who among Jesus’ audience would have expected a Samaritan to be the one to aid the man beaten beside the road).

While humans are radically open, AI systems are closed in on themselves. Such a system cannot conceive of anything beyond the boundaries of the data at its disposal. But reality (which is another word for living as the saint God is always making us to be) is not a closed system. It is radically open, animated by the same love that moves the sun and other stars. On this point, the fraction rite at Mass, during which the celebrant fractures the consecrated host, is a supple image. That which merely appears to be whole in the unbroken host is fractured, but it is from that brokenness that a more real wholeness emerges. Only through our participation in and recognition of brokenness can new life emerge; this is the Paschal mystery. The fraction rite is just as necessary in the liturgy of the Mass as it is in the liturgy of daily life.

AI shows great promise for basically empirical questions. Its benefits in fields such as healthcare, weather prediction and mathematics are well documented. This is the realm of the empirical. AI begins falling short, however, in the world of the meaningful. That which is most human, most divine, most real is where humans are unique. A wedding, the birth of a child, a baptism, the first and last days of school, a funeral, these experiences bear deep meaning. AI does not have the capacity to engage these in the way it engages empirical matters. When it comes to evangelization, if someone finds that AI deepens how they encounter and accompany, it will have functioned as a tool in support of the uniquely human act of evangelization. I suspect there is a limit to the cases where AI will do this. It’s important that we become familiar with new technologies. Just don’t let them get in the way of human experience.

(Patrick Schmadeke is director of evangelization for the Diocese of Davenport.)


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