Is AI “Sacred” Art Actually Sacrilegious?

Sacred art is a uniquely human participation in the divine creative work, made possible by the fact that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.

PUBLISHED ON

September 2, 2023

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This essay is something of a thought experiment, an exercise in whether or not I can craft an argument—in accord with natural reason and divine revelation—that logically expresses in no uncertain terms what I must call, at the outset, an intuition. Let’s call it a gut feeling. My intuition is this: the use of Artificial Intelligence in the production of sacred art is sacrilegious. Let us proceed.

Sacrilege is often defined according to the object against which the offense is made. In many treatments of the topic, sacrilege is harm done to persons (i.e., personal), places (i.e., local), or things (i.e., real). The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sacrilege in the following manner: 

Sacrilege consists in profaning or treating unworthily the sacraments and other liturgical actions, as well as persons, things, or places consecrated to God. Sacrilege is a grave sin especially when committed against the Eucharist, for in this sacrament the true Body of Christ is made substantially present for us. (CCC 2120; In so doing, the Catechism cites canons 1367 and 1376 in the Code of Canon Law as its sources.)

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Let us leave this definition aside for the moment and move to the question of sacred art and its purpose. Much could be said, but to refine ourselves to a narrow field of discussion, let us look at how the Second Vatican Council treats sacred artwork in the text of Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Discussing the subject, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy offers two guiding principles of which we should be keenly aware. The first considers the means by which art is created, spelling out the efficient and final causes of such work, while the second considers the formal cause of sacred art in its imitation of God the Creator.

In the first place, the council speaks of the fine arts as ranking “among the noblest activities of man’s genius,” further specifying this participation in the arts by speaking of “its highest achievement, which is sacred art” (SC 122). And to what is sacred art directed and oriented? “These arts, by their very nature, are oriented toward the infinite beauty of God which they attempt in some way to portray by the work of human hands” (SC 122).

In the second place, the council speaks further of the reason why human beings engage in the creation of sacred artistic creation in the first place, speaking of the artistic impulse as a participation in the work of creation, “a kind of sacred imitation of God the Creator” (SC 127). The astute reader will recognize here shades of Tolkien’s philosophy of sub-creation.

Taking these propositions in hand, we might offer a synthesis by stating the following: sacred art is a uniquely human participation in the divine creative work, made possible by the fact that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, that represents the heights of human achievement and is directed to fostering and enabling true worship. The question now becomes: does the use of Artificial Intelligence in the creation of art conform to this definition?

In Joseph Ratzinger’s masterful work The Spirit of the Liturgy, the future pope discusses the question of art and the liturgy in great detail. Here I want to dwell on two small points. In his discussion of icons, Ratzinger points to the aspect of asceticism involved in the creation of icons, noting here a dividing line. “Icon painters,” Ratzinger declares, drawing on the thought of the Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov, “must learn how to fast with their eyes and prepare themselves by a long path of prayerful asceticism. This is what marks the transition from art to sacred art. The icon comes from prayer and leads to prayer” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, 121). The dynamic process by which sacred art comes to be springs from the fruit of prayer, of genuine encounter with spiritual realities, something that a program of Artificial Intelligence is fundamentally incapable of doing.

No matter how technically impressive an AI image happens to be, it will never be the result of a unique human experience of the transcendent. Ratzinger goes on, illuminating the true nature of what is given and received in the work of sacred art: 

The sacredness of the image consists precisely in the fact that it comes from an interior vision and thus leads us to such an interior vision. It must be a fruit of contemplation, of an encounter in faith with the new reality of the risen Christ, and so it leads us in turn into an interior gazing, an encounter in prayer with the Lord. (133) 

Sacred art is the material effect of a spiritual cause, an encounter with the Lord that bleeds out into the world by means of canvas, paint, and ink.

Crucially, Ratzinger summarizes the implications for us: “But what does all this mean practically? Art cannot be ‘produced,’ as one contracts out and produces technical equipment” (135). “And why not?” one might ask. Because it does not conform to the biblical notion of human worship, spelled out by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans. What makes true worship unique from all other attempts at appeasing the gods is its rootedness in human reason. Christian worship demands to be “rational worship” (Romans 12:1), otherwise translated as “logical” or “spiritual” worship. The defining adjective of course specifies the way God is to be offered our praise.

We are not meant to offer what does not spring from our rational, logical, and spiritual apprehension of the grace offered to us by Christ and the Church. Christian worship is not irrational, it is not done out of blind obedience; worship is offered to God in accord with the kind of beings we are: spiritual creatures capable of knowledge and love.

So, we come around to the beginning, and we pose the question again: Does the use of Artificial Intelligence in creating sacred art amount to sacrilege? From my perspective, I think that we must answer in the affirmative. The use of AI seems to fail to live up to the standard of Christian worship—that it be rational and spiritual; and to pass off the technologically synthesized conglomeration of colored pixels we might call “AI art” would be to offer artificial worship. Thus, using AI art in the context of prayer or worship would be unworthy of the act.

Admittedly, the question we are addressing here is quite narrow. One must admit that the use of AI in other artistic endeavors is a separate question. Even leaving aside the legal and ethical concerns of artificial intelligence and the sources upon which it draws to create images—is AI simply plagiarizing the work of human artists?—can one justify the use of AI in creating artwork of a religious nature for a more private or profane use (in the technical sense of the word)? Perhaps. That, however, is a question for another day.

In the end, if sacrilege is a transgression against sacred places, persons, or activities—treating them in a profane or unworthy manner—then it seems that the use of AI for the creation of sacred art must be categorically rejected as an offense against the spiritual activities of prayer and the liturgy.

[Image Credit: Shutterstock]

Author

  • Joshua Madden

    Joshua Madden (Ph.D., S.T.L.) is Lector in Catholic Theology at Blackfriars Studium at Oxford University. He teaches and writes primarily on the topics of biblical theology, marriage & family, and the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. His personal website is theologyandreality.substack.com.

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