Catholic Answers pulls plug on AI priest ‘Father Justin’

AI Priest Billboard for AI priest Father Justin on social media. | Credit: Catholic Answers / Screenshot

Father Justin, we hardly knew ye.

Just days after debuting an artificial intelligence (AI) priest character to overwhelmingly negative reviews, Catholic Answers has given “Father Justin” the virtual heave-ho.

The lay-run apologetics and evangelization apostolate, based in El Cajon, California, said it will replace him on its app with a lay character named “Justin.” 

“We won’t say he’s been laicized, because he never was a real priest!” Catholic Answers said in a written statement.

“We chose the character to convey a quality of knowledge and authority, and also as a sign of the respect that all of us at Catholic Answers hold for our clergy,” the statement, from Catholic Answers’ president, Christopher Check, explained.

“Many people, however, have voiced concerns about this choice. We hear these concerns; and we do not want the character to distract from the important purpose of the application, which is to provide sound answers to questions about the Catholic faith in an innovative way that makes good use of the benefits of ‘artificial intelligence.’” 

Catholic Answers said it would continue to tweak the way it works with AI.

Depicted wearing a black cassock sitting among chirping birds, the bearded AI “priest” appeared oblivious to the cascade of criticism that erupted on social media after Catholic Answers debuted the character last week.

Some found him creepy. Some didn’t like his voice. Some worried about replacing actual human beings. Some didn’t like his character being a priest. 

“I say this with nothing but respect for you guys and your work, but ... this should’ve just been a plain search engine,” said Father Mike Palmer, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross, on the social media platform X (formerly Twitter). “Dressing it up as a soulless AI avatar of a priest does absolutely nothing except cause confusion and invite mockery of your otherwise excellent work.”

Even so, “every knock a boost,” as the old saying about negative publicity goes.

As of last Wednesday afternoon, about 1,000 people an hour were using the “Father Justin” app. Traffic at the Catholic Answers website ( was up 77% in April 2024 versus April 2023, said Donna Barrack, director of marketing at Catholic Answers.

Demand was so high that it was taking minutes to receive an access code by email on Wednesday, something that normally takes a few seconds.

Last Wednesday, the National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner, ran into technical problems when it attempted to interact with “Father Justin.” Questions had to be shouted into a laptop microphone, and the app took time to translate them into printed words on the screen. “Eucharist” came out “caressed” and, later, “you, you, you.” “Communion” came across as “commute” and later “commune.”

When he understood a question, though, “Father Justin” provided a short, substantive answer.

Father Justin, Catholic Answers' short-lived AI priest. Credit: Catholic Answers / Screenshot
Father Justin, Catholic Answers' short-lived AI priest. Credit: Catholic Answers / Screenshot

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Asked why you should go to church on Sunday, Father Justin answered with brief quotations from Scripture (Psalm 122:1; 1 Corinthians 12:27; John 6:54) and also explained: “When we gather together for Mass, we are united with Christ and each other in a profound way. We hear God’s Word in the Scriptures, and we receive Jesus himself in the Eucharist. … Going to church isn’t just an obligation, it’s a privilege and a joy.”

“Father Justin” was aimed at providing answers to questions faster than was possible with human apologists on staff. Several years ago, the organization took down a question-and-answer feature on its website because its staff apologists were inundated with thousands of queries.

“With our mission to explain and defend the Catholic faith, we do think artificial intelligence has a usefulness, at least as a starting point. I would caution against it being an ending point in your journey or in your search for answers,” said Chris Costello, director of information technology for Catholic Answers, in a Zoom interview, just prior to the decision to end Father Justin was announced.

Barrack said the “Father Justin” app was an attempt at “gamifying the question-and-answer process” to appeal to young people.

Costello said the intent was never to replace human apologists.

“Obviously, there’s something different in the human delivery,” Costello said. “People … don’t just want the answer. They want to understand the answer. And they want to talk about it and have a back-and-forth, which you can actually do with the application. But I think that there’s always going to be something missing if you don’t have an actual person.”

This story was first published by the National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner, and is reprinted here on CNA with permission.

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