· Vatican City ·

Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça at a Scientific Colloquium on Artificial Intelligence

Renewal and awareness: thinking about the future of Catholic Universities

 Renewal and awareness: thinking about the future of Catholic Universities  ING-028
14 July 2023

In the historical and cultural challenges that Catholic universities have faced and will have to face, it is essential always to combine “renewal” and “awareness”, as Pope Francis has insistently expressed. Cardinal José Tolentino de Mendonça, Prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, said as much in his keynote lecture on Thursday morning, 13 July, during the Scientific Colloquium on the theme: “The Future of Catholic Universities in the AI Age”, which was held at the University of the Sacred Heart in Milan. Intervening through Zoom, the Cardinal invited the eight member universities of the Strategic Alliance of Catholic Research Universities ( sacru ) to “dialogue with the new, work unsparingly on current questions and issues, and establish themselves as great laboratories of the future” in the field of artificial intelligence. The following is the English text of the Cardinal’s words.

The Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae offers Catholic universities a rich impulse of encouragement on which it is worth dwelling. The spirit of the Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae is certainly to root Catholic universities in the “heart of the Church” (no. 1) and its mission, in the “ardent search for truth” (no. 2), in “fidelity to the Christian message” (no. 13), and in “institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family” (no. 13). But it likewise challenges the university to consider itself as “an incomparable center of creativity” (no. 1), to feel called “to continuous renewal” (no. 7), especially “in the world today, characterized by such rapid developments in science and technology” (no. 7). Constant renewal, in an institution that makes the search for truth its mode of existence, must therefore be considered a normal fact. Catholic universities must indeed dialogue with the new, work unsparingly on current questions and issues, and establish themselves as great laboratories of the future. Catholic universities are expected not only to actively guard the noble memory of past days, but also to be the probes, and the cradles, of tomorrow. However, this renewal that characterizes them must be accompanied and, as Ex Corde Ecclesiae reminds us, sustained by a “clear awareness” (no. 7) of their nature and identity. For this reason, in the various historical and cultural turning points that Catholic universities have faced, including the current one, which is so challenging, it becomes essential to always combine two terms: “renewal” and “awareness”.

On “renewal” and “awareness” Pope Francis has been insistent, even shedding light on the theme of the scientific conference now opening: The Future of Catholic Universities in the AI Age. These words of his are indeed appropriate: “We are all aware of how artificial intelligence is increasingly present in every aspect of daily life, both personal and social. It affects the way we understand the world and ourselves [...] and [is] even compelling in human decision-making” (Address to Participants in the “Rome Call” meeting promoted by the Renaissance Foundation, 10 January 2023). And the path he points us towards is that of dialogue and discernment, which clearly stand in the line of “renewal” and “awareness”. Indeed, the Holy Father expresses the “conviction that only truly inclusive forms of dialogue can enable us to discern wisely how to put artificial intelligence and digital technologies at the service of the human family” (Address to Participants in the “Minerva Dialogues”, 27 March 2023).

There is no question that the future requires an interactive vision, a multifaceted “maturation” of reality and the audacity to take risks. Risk, we know well, is inseparable from an educational context worthy of its name. But reasonable risk. Reasonable risk is, for example, in the present context, to keep priorities duly safeguarded: “the priority of the ethical over the technical”, the “primacy of the person over things”, “the superiority of spirit over matter” since “the cause of man will be served only if knowledge is united with consciousness” (Address at the World Congress on Catholic Education promoted by the Congregation for Catholic Education, 21 November 2015). Thus, there is a need to strengthen an integral anthropology that “inscribes” the human person at the heart of the major processes of civilization. The great investment to be made can only be a human one, that is, an investment in the formation of every member of the human family so that they may develop their cognitive, creative, spiritual and ethical potential and thus contribute, in a qualified way, to the common good. The big question behind artificial intelligence continues to be anthropological. The challenges posed to education cannot be other than those posed, today, to the human person.

Universities and, even more so, universities which share the Church’s mission, stand at a crossroads of cultural, scientific and social possibilities. They do not live for themselves, as if they were impermeable bubbles of reality. On the contrary, they develop to the extent that they become capable of listening, capable of co-responsible exercise of collaborative practices, and of a generative encounter of people and cultures. This requires creative intelligence, but also discernment that cannot be partial, nor improvised, but solidly based on one’s values.

In relation to the “change of an era” we are experiencing, I am reminded of the manner in which Plato in the Phaedrus describes the cautious reaction to the transition from societies based on orality to societies in which writing becomes dominant. Opinions were divided. For some, writing makes human beings wiser and is a medicine that comes to the aid of their memory. For others, the dangers outweigh the advantages, and they argue that the new form of communication “will bring about forgetfulness in the souls of its learners from the lack of practice in use of their memory, inasmuch as through their reliance on writing they are reminded of things as a result of alien impressions which are from outside, and not from within... having become widely read without teaching, they will think they are very knowledgeable, while for the most part they are ignorant”.

Undoubtedly, the entry of Catholic universities into this new historical era, to a large extent yet to be discovered and regulated, obliges us to a delicate exercise of responsibility. The reflections of Pope Francis, which we are called to embrace, appear to be of particular relevance. Says the Holy Father, “Mere training in the correct use of new technologies will not prove sufficient. As instruments or tools, these are not ‘neutral’, for, as we have seen, they shape the world and engage consciences on the level of values. We need a broader educational effort. […] There is a political dimension to the production and use of artificial intelligence, which has to do with more than the expanding of its individual and purely functional benefits. In other words, it is not enough simply to trust in the moral sense of researchers and developers of devices and algorithms. There is a need to create intermediate social bodies that can incorporate and express the ethical sensibilities of users and educators. […] We are beginning to glimpse a new discipline that we might call “the ethical development of algorithms” or more simply “algor-ethics” (Address to Participants in the General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, 28 February 2020).

May our Catholic universities, with the tools of “renewal” and “awareness», always move forward in the right way.