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Bill SchmittMay 25, 20245 min read

Pope Francis on Risks of AI: A ‘Theology of the Disembodied’

World Communications Day Message Sees Moral Challenges from Tech

Among the many ways in which Pope Francis has distinguished himself from his predecessors, he speaks a lot about algorithms. His proclivities as a pastor shine through when he critiques, in words of forbearance and warning, today’s high-tech temptation “to become like God without God.”

That’s a quote from his latest iteration of perspectives on the ethereal battle of Man vs. Machine Learning. It is among the insights in the Vatican’s Jan. 24 release of his 2024 message for World Communications Day, “Artificial Intelligence and the Wisdom of the Heart: Towards a Fully Human Communication.”

Theology of the Disembodied

One might say that four decades after Pope John Paul II concluded his landmark presentations on the “Theology of the Body,” Pope Francis is compiling a less formal “Theology of the Disembodied.”

He is summoning the flesh-and-blood faithful to heighten our commitment to mind, heart, soul, solidarity, and dignity at a pace that outwits the growing global endeavor to give us “chatbots” and much, much more.

“A new kind of human being must take shape, endowed with a deeper spirituality and new freedom and interiority,” Francis said in his message, which was posted on the feast day of St. Francis DeSales, patron saint of journalism, months ahead of the Catholic Church’s 58th annual World Day of Social Communications.

“At this time in history, which risks becoming rich in technology and poor in humanity, our reflections must begin with the human heart. . . . Only by adopting a spiritual way of viewing reality, only by recovering a wisdom of the heart, can we confront and interpret the newness of our time and rediscover the path to a fully human communication.”

Technical extensions of our natural abilities can help the world to overcome its language gaps, better understand our “patrimony of written knowledge from past ages,” and support our thinking in many disciplines “as a means of loving service,” he acknowledged.

However, digital dominance can also cause “cognitive pollution” that misinforms and misleads us. He cautioned against a “technology of simulation” which “distorts our relationship with others and with reality.”

The Urge to Evaluate the Risks of AI

Repeating his urgent call for “a binding international treaty” to regulate the development and use of artificial intelligence (AI), he said individuals and institutions must also take their own steps to cling to very personal values and responsibilities not recognized by “big data.”

The problem is that “algorithms are not neutral,” as Francis taught this week. They create a risk of “turning everything into abstract calculations that reduce individuals to data, thinking to a mechanical process, experience to isolated cases, goodness to profit, and, above all, a denial of the uniqueness of each individual and his or her story.”

Journalists and communications professionals have a particular duty to focus on truth in order to ensure that all people become “discerning participants” in a meaningful process of teaching, learning, and caring.

“It is unacceptable that the use of artificial intelligence should lead to groupthink, to a gathering of unverified data, to a collective editorial dereliction of duty.”

Questions About AI 

The Pope provides a long paragraph of questions we should pose toward technology and toward ourselves.

How will we ensure human dignity in our communications, both among the content generators and audiences? How can we make “the operation of algorithms for indexing and de-indexing” more transparent? How can we govern search engines that are “capable of celebrating or canceling persons and opinions, histories and cultures?”

These are ideas Francis has been mulling for years. His monthly prayer intention for Catholics in November 2020 was “that robotics and AI would remain always at the service of human beings.”

In March 2023, he met with scientists, engineers, business leaders, lawyers, philosophers, theologians, ethicists, and members of the Roman Curia at an annual conference on digital technologies called the “Minerva Dialogues.”

He urged the developers of machine learning to “respect such values as inclusion, transparency, security, equity, privacy, and reliability” in order to make AI truly valuable.

As reported at the time by Fox Business News, Francis said regulation of future developments must “promote genuine progress, contributing, that is, to a better world and an integrally higher quality of life.”

A separate Vatican conference on AI ethics in January 2023 allowed him to meet with members of the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities. They signed a document calling on technologists, who were already seeing a need for a “pause” in their tidal wave of advancements, to make sure future collaborations include leaders in ethics and faith.

Francis returned to the subject in his Jan. 1, 2024, message for the Church’s 57th annual World Day of Peace.

Artificial Intelligence and Its Risks

He warned about the use of AI in propaganda, adding that we must apply critical thinking about communication and humility in our geopolitical plans:

“Human beings are, by definition, mortal; by proposing to overcome every limit through technology, in an obsessive desire to control everything, we risk losing control over ourselves; in the quest for an absolute freedom, we risk falling into the spirit of a ‘technological dictatorship.’”

The Pope even became a bit playful in the use of one of his favorite words. He urged “a cross-disciplinary dialogue aimed at an ethical development of algorithms—an algor-ethics—in which values will shape the directions taken by new technologies.”

It’s useful, even galvanizing, to recognize the thought and prayer Pope Francis is investing in the battle of Man vs. Machine Learning, the Flesh-and-Blood vs. the Disembodied.

Risks of AI: A ‘Theology of the Disembodied’

As seen in his 2024 World Communications Day message, he has studied both the benefits and dangers of any new “wisdom” that is not ensouled with human values and activated virtues. And this pastor knows that our growth in wisdom must also include an embrace of our frailties and mortality, as well as an immortality in the hands of God—not to be handed over to AI.

His teaching of this theology isn’t just another entry in today’s exciting and enticing marketplace of ideas. As he said in his World Day of Peace message, “realities are greater than ideas.”

We can see he realizes that, in this season of zealous faith in technology, religion has picked up the transcendent duty to defend reality, reason, and truth-telling. That’s ultimately the basis for, and content of, good communication.


Bill Schmitt

Bill Schmitt is a journalist, educator, and marketing communications specialist who has been an adjunct professor of English and media at several schools, most recently Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, IN. He served on the communications staff of the University of Notre Dame from 2003 to 2017, managing many projects and joining in a wide range of multimedia, interdisciplinary collaborations. Since then, his freelance work has included feature-writing, editing, podcasting, and blogging, with much of his work centered on the Catholic faith. Bill holds a BA from Fordham University and an MPA from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Find his work at,, and billschmitt-onword on Linked-In.