Life & Soul

A ‘post-human priesthood’? What a counsel of despair

The BlessU2 robot (Youtube screenshot/Volker Rahn)

The theologian Josef Pieper says that one of the most common errors afflicting Christians is to treat God as though he were “a something” rather than “a Someone”. The more I reflect on my own experience, the more I see the truth in it. And it follows that the more one treats God as a something, the greater the temptation to downplay his presence and action in the sacraments he instituted, which become simply expressions of cultic identity.

So it was with a mixture of disbelief and pity that I saw reports of a theology professor at Villanova University suggesting we ordain robots to the priesthood. Artificial Intelligence, says Sister Illia Delio, challenges Catholicism “to move forward to a post-human priesthood”.

Like so many of the self-identifying progressive voices in the Church, this one would appear to be tuned to the 1970s. I am thinking in particular of the 1975 cult classic film The Stepford Wives, in which a bride moves into her dream house in small-town America where all the other housewives enjoy domestic idylls. They are never stressed or poorly, never overburdened by their responsibilities. They cook gourmet meals, adore their husbands and children.

It eventually emerges that this perfection is due to the fact that the real wives have all been replaced by robots.

Perhaps Sister has a point. Stepford priests could likewise be programmed to minister flawlessly everywhere. Episcopal oversight could adjust their software on scales from “rigid” to “theologically progressive”; and “Extraordinary Form” to “Wildly Charismatic” liturgically. Inculturation compliance could be set according to location, all the way from “Father of the Brompton Oratory” to “rainforest shaman”. Of course, the technology would have to be robust enough that they couldn’t be hacked by parish councils, or that a rogue robot wouldn’t suddenly proclaim itself a bishop and start ordaining lady robots or exclusively Latin-speaking ones.

It seems that the professor is immune to the admonition of the Curé of Ars to think of Jesus Christ when you see a priest. She argues that robots would be an improvement because they wouldn’t abuse children and by being gender-neutral, they would purge the priesthood of patriarchy. A lot of hurt must have contributed to such a statement because, far from a solution, it sounds like a counsel of despair if this characterises your best aspiration for priesthood.

The Curé of Ars was pointing out that priesthood isn’t mediated by a something, but a Someone. Its future looks only to the Someone, the great High Priest. He was neither gender-neutral, nor beyond the reach of temptation. Though sinless, he was flesh and blood like those who share his priesthood. He left us the gift of the sacrament of orders, desiring that those who minister it would offer their humanity to be conformed in the same dynamic way, that they would permit their humanity to be transformed by grace, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and enter into his sacrifice. He was no stranger to betrayal, and yet what a great mystery that still he chose only humanity, for all its weakness, to mediate the divine fully. Only a Someone could be invested with the power of salvation, for salvation itself is personified in Him.