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.

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.)

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.

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