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How AI may be able to improve journalism when it comes to reporting on Catholicism…

How AI may be able to improve journalism when it comes to reporting on Catholicism…

One of the things I enjoy about the summer is catching up with people I haven’t seen all year to discuss news, politics and culture. Since so many of my friends are in the news business, inevitably the state of the mass media comes up as a topic.

The one constant subject that has arisen from these conversations is the rise (and potential threat) of artificial intelligence. Specifically, the topic of how AI can (and will) replace humans who report and write for a living.

While machines have yet to replace all writers, the threat is real. This isn’t just limited to journalists. AI has impacted Hollywood (look at the current writers strike), education (from grade school to college) and the retail industry. And yes, journalism is up there to when it comes to an industry seen as under threat, according to a poll conducted earlier this year.

AI a either a new technological monster or a friend to journalists. The industry is divided by the issue. Like the internet back in the 1990s, AI is both astonishing and perplexing.

How has AI and machine learning impacted journalism? Can it make it better or worse? These are just two valid questions people in newsrooms are asking. The question here at GetReligion is how AI could affect religion-beat work and, in this case, the state of Catholic news and publications.

For starters, consider that there will be 10 new AP Stylebook entries to caution journalists about common pitfalls in coverage of artificial intelligence. Here’s what the Associated Press said:

While AP staff may experiment with ChatGPT with caution, they do not use it to create publishable content.

Any output from a generative AI tool should be treated as unvetted source material. AP staff must apply their editorial judgment and AP’s sourcing standards when considering any information for publication.

In accordance with our standards, we do not alter any elements of our photos, video or audio. Therefore, we do not allow the use of generative AI to add or subtract any elements.

We will refrain from transmitting any AI-generated images that are suspected or proven to be false depictions of reality. However, if an AI-generated illustration or work of art is the subject of a news story, it may be used as long as it clearly labeled as such in the caption.

We urge staff to not put confidential or sensitive information into AI tools.

We also encourage journalists to exercise due caution and diligence to ensure material coming into AP from other sources is also free of AI-generated content.

Generative AI makes it even easier for people to intentionally spread mis- and disinformation through altered words, photos, video or audio, including content that may have no signs of alteration, appearing realistic and authentic. To avoid using such content inadvertently, journalists should exercise the same caution and skepticism they would normally, including trying to identify the source of the original content, doing a reverse image search to help verify an image’s origin, and checking for reports with similar content from trusted media.

Other than this scary list, journalists have no worries!

As it pertains to religion reporting, the use of AL tools such as ChatGPT is also something worth delving into. The big question for me is can these tools actually make the reporting around matters concerning the Catholic church better? 

In some cases, it can — but only if AI is used properly and if the reporter asks the right questions. Let’s look at some real stories and what AI could have done to add valid content. The hope is that such tools make stories better, not worse.

Reuters reported on Pope Francis’ weekly Angelus message on Aug. 13 in St. Peter’s Square, where he “urged politicians to address the ‘open wound’ of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.”

This is what Reuters reported:

“I encourage the political and diplomatic forces who are trying to heal this wound in a spirit of solidarity and brotherhood, as well as the efforts of those who work to prevent shiprwrecks and rescue migrants.”

Deadly disasters are frequents as migrants try to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. More than 22,000 people have died or gone missing in its waters since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Port officials on the Italian island of Sicily recovered one body on Sunday after a boat carrying 13 migrants capsized on Saturday night off the nearby island of Marettimo, ANSA news agency reported. Another person was also presumed to have died.

On Saturday, six people died after a migrant boat trying to cross the Channel from France to Britain capsized early on Saturday, and another two people were possibly missing, French authorities said.

The news account was fair and accurate. However, like so many news stories regarding what Pope Francis says, there is almost never any context as to why he said it. Many think this pope is political, but there’s a reason why he would address the migrant crisis. And it’s not because he’s favors an open borders policy.

I asked ChatGPT what Catholic doctrine says regarding immigration and helping the poor and those in need?

This is what the AI said:

Catholic doctrine emphasizes the principles of social justice, human dignity, and solidarity, which have implications for issues like immigration, helping the poor, and aiding those in need. The Catholic Church’s teachings are derived from a combination of scripture, tradition, and papal encyclicals. Here’s a general overview of what Catholic doctrine says regarding these topics:


The Catholic Church recognizes the dignity and rights of every human person, regardless of their nationality or immigration status. Catholic social teaching supports the rights of migrants and refugees, emphasizing the need to treat them with compassion and respect. The principle of solidarity calls for a response to the needs of immigrants and refugees, and the principle of the common good encourages societies to provide fair and just immigration policies that balance the rights of migrants with the well-being of the local community.

Pope Francis, in particular, has been vocal about the need to welcome and integrate immigrants, calling on nations to show hospitality and offer assistance to those fleeing violence, persecution, and poverty. He has repeatedly stressed the importance of seeing migrants and refugees as individuals with inherent dignity and potential, rather than merely as a burden.

Helping the Poor and Those in Need:

Catholic social teaching places a strong emphasis on the obligation to care for the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized members of society. The concept of the preferential option for the poor means that societies should prioritize the needs of the less fortunate and structure their policies and practices in ways that uplift them. This is rooted in the teachings of Jesus Christ and is reflected in various passages in the Bible that call for charity and justice.

The Church teaches that individuals and societies should work to address the root causes of poverty and social inequality, rather than simply offering temporary assistance. This includes advocating for economic systems that promote fairness, social safety nets, access to education and healthcare, and other measures that contribute to human flourishing and well-being.

Additionally, the practice of almsgiving (charitable giving) is encouraged as a way to share one’s resources with those in need. This can take the form of direct assistance, as well as supporting organizations and initiatives that provide aid to the less fortunate.

It’s important to note that while Catholic doctrine provides these principles, there can be differing interpretations and opinions within the Catholic community on how these principles should be applied in specific situations. The Church’s teachings evolve over time, and different popes and theologians might emphasize certain aspects more strongly depending on the current social and political context.

That’s very helpful — although specific references to specific church documents would have added credibility. A line from this could have easily appeared midway through the story to explain to readers that the pope isn’t necessarily an idealogue, but someone who is upholding centuries of Catholic doctrine and tradition.

Let’s try another recent story that more complicated and, alas, more political as it relates to the “culture wars.”

The New York Times — in a news story under the headline “Court sides with Catholic school that fired unmarried pregnant teacher — reported the case on Aug. 16 this way:

The New Jersey Supreme Court sided on Monday with a Catholic elementary school that fired an unmarried art teacher who was pregnant, ending a long legal battle that had drawn national attention at a time of fierce debate over religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

The school, St. Theresa’s in Kenilworth, N.J., fired the teacher, Victoria Crisitello, in 2014, saying she had violated the school’s code of ethics by having premarital sex, according to court documents.

Ms. Crisitello sued, citing the state’s Law Against Discrimination, which prohibits employment discrimination based on pregnancy and marital status. The lawsuit was passed back and forth between state trial and appellate courts for years before the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

In its decision on Monday, the court found that the firing was protected under a religious exception to the anti-discrimination law. The law allows St. Theresa’s, as a religious employer, to require its employees to abide by the rules of the Catholic Church, the court said.

So far, so good. Here’s what else they reported:

Ms. Crisitello’s lawyer, Thomas A. McKinney, said he was disappointed and noted that the decision would affect not only religious schools, but “all different types of religious entities that employ people,” including hospitals.

“If a woman is pregnant and unmarried and working at a Catholic hospital, she can be terminated,” he said. “Our biggest issue always with this case was that you have a policy that’s only being implemented against unmarried pregnant women.”

St. Theresa’s School first hired Ms. Crisitello, a former student, as a part-time toddler caregiver in 2011, according to court documents. Ms. Crisitello signed an agreement at the time that required employees to abide by the teachings of the Catholic Church.

In 2014, the school principal offered her a full-time job as an art teacher, court records show. Ms. Crisitello said she was interested, but requested a raise and explained that she was pregnant.

She did not expect the school to take issue with her pregnancy, Mr. McKinney said. But a few weeks later, the school fired Ms. Crisitello, who was engaged to be married, for violating the terms of her employment agreement by having premarital sex, according to court records.

Reactions on both sides was followed by quotes from experts. Not one sentence dedicated to why the Catholic church would fire an employee such as Crisitello.

Enter ChatGPT. I asked the AI what does Catholic doctrine say about pre-marital sex? Here was the answer provided:

Catholic doctrine views premarital sex as morally wrong. The Catholic Church teaches that sexual activity is meant to be an expression of love and commitment within the context of marriage, which is considered a sacred bond. Premarital sex is considered to be contrary to this understanding of the purpose of human sexuality.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is the official summary of Catholic doctrine, states that “Sexuality, by means of which man and woman give themselves to one another through the acts which are proper and exclusive to spouses, is not something simply biological, but concerns the innermost being of the human person as such. It is realized in a truly human way only if it is an integral part of the love by which a man and woman commit themselves totally to one another until death.”

The Church’s teachings on premarital sex are based on a combination of scriptural references, traditional moral theology, and the belief in the sanctity of marriage. The Church emphasizes the importance of chastity, which involves abstinence from sexual activity outside of marriage. This teaching is seen as a way to honor the dignity of the human person, maintain the sacredness of marriage, and uphold the proper use of human sexuality.

It’s important to note that Catholic teachings can evolve and vary in their emphasis based on cultural and regional factors. Individuals who are curious about Catholic doctrine on this matter should refer to official Church documents, consult with a knowledgeable priest, or seek guidance from reputable Catholic sources.

A direct quote from the Catechism of the Catholic church? When was the last time you read anything attributed to that authoritative and relevant source in a news story published by a secular news organization?

Let’s give the AI another story to make better. the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on Aug. 17 about how Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine will appear at an upcoming fundraiser “to benefit the campaign opposing the abortion-rights ballot issue that Ohioans will vote on in November.”

The news story includes in the headline and lede that the event will also feature Cleveland Bishop Edward Malesic. Here’s the key section from the story:

The Aug. 29 fundraiser will be held at the Gates Mills home of Umberto Fedeli, a prominent local businessman and major GOP political donor, according to an event invitation obtained by and The Plain Dealer.

The invitation says attendees must give $500 to get in, although guests can give up to $50,000 each to be designated as an official event host. Proceeds will go to Protect Women Ohio, the campaign group working to defeat a November ballot issue that would add legal protections for abortion to Ohio’s constitution. The amendment would nullify the state’s “heartbeat” law that bans abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy, although the law has been on hold for nearly a year due to an ongoing court challenge.

Lt. Gov. Jon Husted also is a headlining guest, while a number of other groups and Republican politicians also are featured guests, including Ohio Right to Life, the Center for Christian Virtue, U.S. Rep. Max Miller, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bernie Moreno, Attorney General Dave Yost and State Auditor Keith Faber.

The event illustrates how DeWine and the Catholic Church each plan to take a hands-on role in opposing the abortion amendment after remaining in the background of the campaign for Issue 1, a related measure that voters soundly rejected earlier this month.

This story clearly paints the church as a political organization. That point is made further down in the story with his paragraph:  

The Ohio Catholic Conference has said it will oppose the November abortion-rights amendment, though, writing in an open letter in February that the measure threatens the “dignity of life in its earliest stages.” The Catholic church has been a major opponent to abortion proposals in other states, giving at least $6 million to an unsuccessful effort to oppose a similar amendment in Michigan last year.  

The story makes no mention of why, in terms of doctrine, abortion is so abhorrent in terms of ancient and modern Catholic teachings. Here’s what ChatGPT said:

In Catholic doctrine, abortion is considered to be morally abhorrent due to its conflict with several fundamental principles of Catholic teachings. The Church’s stance on abortion is based on its understanding of human dignity, the sanctity of life, natural law, and the belief in the inherent value of every human being. Here are some key doctrinal reasons why abortion is considered so abhorrent in Catholic teaching:

Sanctity of Human Life: Catholic doctrine emphasizes the intrinsic value and sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. The belief is that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore, all human life is sacred and deserving of protection. Abortion, which intentionally ends the life of an unborn child, is seen as a direct violation of this principle.

Natural Law: The Catholic Church follows a moral framework known as natural law, which asserts that certain moral truths are accessible to human reason through the observation of the natural world and the inherent human nature. According to natural law, abortion contradicts the natural purpose of human reproductive processes, which are intended to nurture and bring new life into the world.

Fifth Commandment: The Fifth Commandment — “Thou shalt not kill” — is a fundamental principle of Catholic morality. Abortion is seen as a direct violation of this commandment, as it intentionally ends the life of an innocent human being.

Doctrine of the Incarnation: Central to Catholic belief is the doctrine of the Incarnation—the belief that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. This reinforces the idea of the divine worth of human beings. Abortion is viewed as rejecting and denying the dignity of the unborn child, who is seen as bearing the image of God.

Consistency of Ethics: Catholic moral teachings strive for consistency in ethical principles. If the Church were to permit abortion in certain circumstances, it might be seen as compromising the consistent protection of innocent human life. Thus, the Church’s position is that life should be protected from conception to natural death, regardless of the circumstances of conception or the potential challenges involved.

The Common Good: Catholic social teaching emphasizes the common good — the well-being of all members of society. Abortion is seen as harmful not only to the unborn child but also to the fabric of society, as it devalues human life and weakens the bonds of solidarity among individuals.

It’s important to note that while these doctrinal reasons underpin the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion, there are differing views within the broader Catholic community on how to address specific cases, such as when the life of the mother is at risk or in cases of rape or severe fetal abnormalities. The Church’s teachings are often nuanced and take into account the complexities of individual situations.

Again, lots of great information. It would be rather easy, offered this head start, for journalists to find the specific sources to quote, with clear attributions.

Again, when was the last time you read a news story that quoted the Ten Commandments or that “human beings are created in the image and likeness of God” and that all human life is in need of protection?

Like Google, ChatGPT can provide some wonderful answers and insights. But Google delivers answers through search. You can’t Google what you don’t know. Instead, AI — in this case in the form of ChatGPT — can be a useful resource to journalists who cover religion.

In an interesting development, a new AI tool has been created to help explain Catholic doctrine and teaching. Here’s how the National Catholic Register recently reported on it:

VATICAN CITY — U.S. entrepreneur Matthew Sanders says a new artificial intelligence project that his company has founded “could be a game changer” for the Catholic Church.

“Our core objective is to make Catholic insight and Church teaching available to anyone in the world, on any device, in their native language,” said Sanders, the founder and CEO of Longbeard, a U.S.-based software company that has created Magisterium AI, a growing dataset of Church documents and algorithms that aims to make the Church’s teaching more accessible than ever.

Currently experimental, Sanders told the Register that Magisterium AI is aimed primarily at formators and teachers of the faith, helping priests to enrich their homilies, facilitate catechism classes and to assist parents in catechizing their children.

Among its services, Magisterium AI’s creators say it can answer “any questions” on Church teaching, practices or other topics, helping to “explain complex theological, philosophical, and historical concepts in simple, understandable language.”

It can also “provide contextual information” on the Church’s history, “helping users understand why the Church teaches what it does,” as well as generate theological reflections, summarize Church documents, and be used to create educational resources.

Magisterium AI is also another tool that journalists in secular newsrooms should explore. I have never used this tool, but it can be useful if it does what’s described. It’s another example of how these tools can be integrated into the reporting of many journalists. However, journalists will need to connect the dots online and find the authoritative sources that are being quoted.

It’s true that the fear of AI replacing journalists is real. It’s also true that these tools, if used correctly, can be a big help to many unaware of what Catholic teaching is about and how it impacts political and legal fights currently griping our nation and world.

AI must be taken seriously. Not only are jobs potentially at risk, but so is the credability of the information newsrooms pump out.

FIRST IMAGE: AI bots could be the future of journalism as seen in this Wikipedia Commons photo from mikemacmarketing

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