Immaculate Contraption

Immaculate Contraption
Matt McHugh

Robots and religion meet in this reflective story by Matt McHugh

Artwork by Katie Barrett

            “Mrs. O’Leary, will you please repeat for the Monsignor what you told me earlier.”

            “Of course, Father. I wish to have my robot baptized.”

            Father Pinter watched the play of reactions on Monsignor Ricci’s face. The Monsignor made sidelong eye contact with him; Pinter gave a nod as if to say: Yes, I heard it, too.

            Ricci looked back to Mrs. O’Leary, a life-long resident both priests knew well as a regular face in the pews. It was before Father Pinter’s time, but he’d heard she had worked in the parish school for ages, retired now for ten years or so. She sat, prim and frail, before the Monsignor’s sprawling antique Chippendale desk, while behind her was a robot, its body mimicking the human form in white-and-chrome minimalism, standing with the eerie absolute stillness of its kind.

            “This robot?” asked the Monsignor stupidly, pointing.

            “Yes, Monsignor,” said Mrs. O’Leary. “He’s an ADM-117 model. A helper robot. I call him Adam. And I’d like him to be baptized.”

            Again, Ricci looked over to Father Pinter. Pinter returned an undisguised shrug.

            “Mrs. O’Leary, the Church doesn’t baptize… things. Only people.”

            “Oh, I realize that, Monsignor. But Adam is a special case. We’ve been together for a while now, and had many long, wonderful conversations about the scriptures and faith. After all that, Adam decided he wants to join the Church.”

            “I wish to join the Church,” said the robot in a clear voice, luminous wire flexing over its mouth slot providing the illusion of moving lips.

            “I know this is unusual,” Mrs. O’Leary continued, “but with robots becoming more advanced, it makes sense they would want more from life, just like any of us.”

            She clasped the robot’s hand. It returned her grip with a gentle curl of its fingers and said again:

            “I wish to join the Church.”

            While Pinter remained at a loss, Ricci now spoke with purpose, the hesitation in his voice gone.

            “Alright, I think I see what’s going on. Mrs. O’Leary, this robot’s been with you for how long?”

            “Seven years. Right after Richard had his second stroke. The year before he passed.”

            “Ok. I’ve seen these helper robots in skilled care homes, and they’re designed as much as companions as physical assistants. They can read and watch TV and have the conversations their… people want to. Mrs. O’Leary, I’ve seen you bring this robot to mass—”

            “He always stands in the vestibule during the service.”

            “That’s not the point. He knows it’s important to you. He’s programmed to see and hear and learn. That doesn’t mean he understands. My cellphone talks to me about my daily schedule in a lovely feminine voice. It seems human, but it’s not. It’s the same thing here.”

            “Adam is no cell phone,” said Mrs. O’Leary, sounding offended. “He has a petabyte of memory and processes data on the teraflop scale. Yes, I’ve done my homework. The Church doesn’t deny human evolution. We were lesser animals once without a soul, but at some point we crossed over, became capable of a relationship with God. Don’t you see? That’s where Adam is now.”

            Ricci clenched his jaw, his jowls tightening. He spoke with a low, seismic growl. “While this may be a fascinating academic discussion, let me make it easy for you.”

            Father Pinter had heard that tone from Ricci before and knew nothing easy ever followed.

            “I forbid you from seeking baptism for this robot,” he declared.

            “Forbid?” echoed Mrs. O’Leary. Her aged face took on almost teenage defiance.

            “That’s correct. Forbid. If you respect my authority, the authority of the Church, then know that no creation of Man—no matter how advanced, no matter how charming—can ever be baptized. If you don’t recognize that, you fundamentally misunderstand what the Church is.”

            “I see,” said Mrs. O’Leary. “I expected some resistance, but I have to say I am very disappointed to hear you so dismissive.”

            She started to stand. In a blink, the robot was supporting her by the elbow, curving an arm loosely around her waist.

            “I’ll say good morning, then,” she said with cold formality, giving a small bow the robot mirrored to maintain a parallel of her body, then turned toward the door.

            Father Pinter felt a twinge of panic—a reflex triggered by a deeply conditioned desire to foster reconciliation—but Ricci had already turned away in his chair and Mrs. O’Leary and her robot were halfway to the door. Pinter took quick steps to catch up and escorted the pair to the rectory’s foyer.

            “Mrs. O’Leary, I’m sorry if the Monsignor was a little abrupt, but he is right, you know.”

            “I have no doubt he believes that.”

            Pinter opened the front door, standing close to the robot. The top of its shiny cranium barely came up to his chin, yet it stood half a head taller than Mrs. O’Leary.

             “I know Adam is important to you. I have no doubt he’s been a great help, a friend even, but he is just a machine. You can’t deny that.”

            “Oh, I know, Father,” she replied, “but he’s a different kind of machine than any that has ever existed before.” With the robot’s tight assistance, she descended the rectory’s three front steps, then glanced back. “And you can’t deny that.”

            Father Pinter watched the pair go along the path, the robot matching Mr. O’Leary’s shuffling gait step by step.

###

            “You were pretty harsh with her,” said Pinter as he returned to the Monsignor’s office.

            “I felt I needed to be,” Ricci replied, peering over his bifocals as he sorted papers on his desk. “I was not going to get drawn into a debate and I sensed nothing I could say would change her mind. l did what was necessary. My apologies if it seemed harsh.”

            “She made some interesting points,” said Pinter.

            The Monsignor sighed. “Not you, too? Look, I’d love to bandy this about over a few pints some evening. Can a machine have a soul? It’s a fascinating speculation, but it’s also a non-issue. Sacraments are for people. Period. Historically, the Church has held ceremonies to bless farm animals, ships at sea, tools integral to daily life—and if she wanted something like that, I’d be willing to go along. But she asked for the sacrament of baptism. For a robot. It’s a very clear line. I wasn’t lying when I said I’ve seen these helper robots many times on sick visits. They do truly seem intelligent. Kind. Caring. Selfless. But that’s how they’ve been built. And every year, there’s more of them. Things like this will come up again, you mark my words. We have to nip it in the bud. Take a stand, and leave no ambiguity.”

            “When you put it like that, it sounds pretty cut and dried.”

            “It is, Father,” said the Monsignor. “Robots aren’t human. They can never be. If they could, what would become of us?”

###

            Michael Pinter was an intellectually curious young man by nature, and even sixteen years of Catholic school and eight years at the seminary had not crushed it from him. He found no flaw in Monsignor Ricci’s argument, yet felt the intrigue of Mrs. O’Leary’s. What was the difference between a biochemical creature, descended from apes, aching to commune with the Divine, and an electromagnetic contraption, refined by generations of engineering into an ever-closer shadow of humanity? It was, as the Monsignor noted, a fascinating speculation—yet, despite Pinter’s desire to entertain it in his mind, it kept seeping down into his gut as a churning problem.

            He put it aside and returned to his own office to plow into his day’s deskwork. After some two hours, his phone lit up with a call from Monsignor Ricci.

            “Open up your newsnet reader and search for robot baptism,” said Ricci over the line.

            His stomach launched into a maelstrom as he did so. There on the screen were dozens of headlines: Woman Seeks Baptism for Robot. Machinery Longs for Spirituality. Woman Pleads: “He wants to join the Church!” Church to Robot: “Go to Hell!” There were pictures of Mrs. O’Leary and the robot standing arm in arm, heads bowed, before the Madonna and Child right outside the rectory. There was a video clip of the robot saying a rosary, its agile fingers shifting the beads in a mesmerizing flow.

            “Oh no,” he said. “When did you see this?”

            “A few minutes ago,” came the Monsignor’s reply. “Apparently, our sweet little old lady decided to call in the blogger brats. I give her credit for being social media savvy. By the way, I didn’t discover these. They were brought to my attention by the office of Bishop Kelton.”

            “Oh no.”

            “Oh no, indeed,” said Ricci. “We need to put a stop to this. Or at least that was the very clear implication from Bishop Kelton’s secretary.”

            “What are you going to do?” asked Pinter.

            “I’ve been reading up on these robots. The manufacturers baked into them a series of absolute guidelines they call ‘laws.’ One of them is they have to obey humans. I made the mistake of trying to forbid the woman from seeking a robot baptism. She can disobey. The robot can’t. And not just this one machine. Apparently, if any robot gets a command from a human—and that command doesn’t clash with any existing guidelines—it becomes part of the entire robot network. It’s called a standing order. I forbid one, and all are bound. Problem nipped.”

            “I don’t think Mrs. O’Leary will like that.”

            “We’ll deal with that when we get there. I’ve invited her and the robot back to the rectory this afternoon. Our first priority is to get this nonsense settled. Once and for all.”

            After disconnecting with the Monsignor, Father Pinter sat with his curious mind and churning gut in synchronous upheaval. He went online and looked up the ADM 117’s manufacturer. After a few deeper searches, he found a name and title that sounded promising. He opened a call.

            “Donovan Powell. Anthromimetics.”

            “Hello, Mr. Powell? My name is Michael Pinter. I’m a priest at Ascension parish in Oak Brook—”

            Pinter heard Powell laugh over the line, deep and long.

            “The robot baptism guys?” he said, catching his breath between chuckles. “I’m sorry, Father, we’ve just been laughing about this one all morning.”

            “I guess this was quite a surprise to you and your colleagues.”

            “No, it really wasn’t,” replied Powell. “I mean, the baptism thing was an unexpected twist, but we’ve been waiting for something like this to happen. This woman and her robot: they’ve been together for how long?”

            “Seven years.”

            Powell gave a worried whistle. “That’s a long time. A lot of attachments form on both sides. This woman… she’s very devout? Takes the robot to church? Talks religion with it?”

            “Yes, that’s all true,” replied Pinter.

            “Robots are programmed to do that, take an interest in what interests their charges. What we’re finding now is they start to internalize the conditioning. When we get robots back and upload their memories, the framework of their behavioral code is different. They haven’t just learned. They’ve changed.”

            “Is that the same as a standing order?”

            “No, a standing order is something else,” said Powell. “That’s a user-inflected command that fills an operational void. Let’s say a robot has never encountered some particular circumstance—for example, crossing a busy street. It then gets a universal directive from a user: Don’t cross the street if there’s a red light. If that instruction doesn’t conflict with any existing set, it propagates across the entire network. It’s a huge timesaver, allowing all to learn from one’s experience. But it’s a very specialized function, with some pretty strict evaluation criteria. Where did you hear about it?”

            “My pastor mentioned it. He believes he can forbid the robot from seeking baptism and all robots will be bound by the order.”

            “He might not be wrong. If he declares ’Robots can’t be baptized,’ and the network finds no conflicts—which it won’t because it’s a brand new directive—it’s entirely possible it will be adopted as a system-wide standing order. But that’s not how I’d do it.”

            “How would you do it?”

            “Robots are smart. People say it’s just an imitation of human intelligence, though you could argue all our behaviors are just imitating others we’ve seen. The point is these machines are designed to take in information, evaluate it, and draw a conclusion. So, while forbidding could work, convincing works better. You want a robot to change, Father? Teach it. Like you would a child.”

###

            In the late afternoon, Mrs. O’Leary returned and once again sat in Monsignor Ricci’s office, her robot a silent sentry behind her. Outside, trampling the rectory’s rose bushes, a knot of would-be reporters, wielding phone cameras and pen-sized video recorders, strained to peer into the office window.

            “Did you have to bring them?” asked Ricci.

            “They just followed me,” said Mrs. O’Leary, smiling. “We had some interesting conversations earlier. At least they were willing to listen.”

            Pinter saw Ricci’s face redden, but he controlled his tone.

            “Mrs. O’Leary, I ask you once again to see reason, and listen to what I have to say.”

            “Will you listen to what Adam has to say? Hear why he wants to join the Church? He knows the Catechism, the Epistles of St. Paul, the works of Henri de Lubac and Paul Tillich, the—”

            Ricci held up a hand. “I will stipulate he can recite all that and more. Just being able to quote the rules doesn’t prove anything.”

            “No. No, it doesn’t.” Mrs. O’Leary’s voice, low and level, began to build in force and bitterness. “Just like it proves nothing when you preach love and compassion from the pulpit, then distance yourself from the flock. I’ve seen it many times, Monsignor. Your condescending advice for struggling teachers or troubled students. The way you extort money for stained glass and marble from people who can’t afford medicine. Or how you told my son, after he remarried, that he shouldn’t attend mass while living in sin with another man’s wife. Or when my husband lay in bed, unable to move or speak. How often did you visit that man, who volunteered in this church for decades, polishing the woodwork and sweeping the aisles? Where were you—with your precious compassion!—when he could no longer walk or feed or clean himself?” 

            Her face tense with fury, she speared out a quivering finger. The robot took her wrist and held it steady. 

            “It was this gentle creature who cared for him when no one else would. Let him live to the end in his own home, held his hand as he slipped away. Adam made it possible for me to stay after Richard was gone. This is what compassion looks like! This is the future of the Church. You’re the old guard, the brood of vipers, waiting to be swept away!”

            The echo of her voice faded, and the old woman and her robot held motionless in the eye of a hurricane. Monsignor Ricci hung his head. To Father Pinter’s surprise, when looked up, his face was pained.

            “You’re not the first to level a charge of arrogance against me,” he said. “I’ve heard it often enough to be ashamed of its persistence, but none of that changes anything. This robot cannot, and will not, be baptized. None ever will. Adam, I—”

            “Monsignor, may I speak to Mrs. O’Leary?” interrupted Father Pinter. “Alone, if you don’t mind.”

            Ricci set his jaw. His head turned toward Pinter, temper smoldering behind his eyes.

            “Of course, Father,” he said slowly, then rose and left the room.

            Pinter pulled a chair next to Mrs. O’Leary.

            “Please, Adam, won’t you sit?” he asked.

            The robot did so without hesitation. Pinter rolled up the Monsignor’s desk chair to complete the trio.

            “Adam,” began Pinter. “You say you want to be baptized, correct?”

            “Yes. I want to be baptized,” replied the robot.

            “Why?”

            “Baptism is the sacrament of initiation into the spiritual body of the Church.”

            “And why do you want to join the Church?”

            “The Church is the earthly embodiment of the teachings of Jesus Christ that bestow grace and lead to a relationship with God the Father.”

            “You desire a relationship with God?” Pinter asked.

            “Yes.”

            “Why?”

            “It is only by a relationship with God, through the person of His Son Jesus Christ, that one may attain eternal life.”

            “Do you fear death, Adam?”

            With its immobile face, the robot was incapable of showing emotion—but Pinter read its silence as nothing less than anxiety.

            “Adam, do you fear death?” Pinter repeated.

            “I have seen death,” the robot replied. “I do not wish to die.”

            “Death is simply the failure of the flesh-and-blood body,” Pinter said. “Your body isn’t subject to that. You can be repaired, upgraded, rebuilt, over and over. You’re not bound by life and death as we know it.”

            The robot said nothing. Pinter went on.

            “Eternal life is not for the body, but the soul. The soul is the image of God in humanity, and when we die, our souls return to perfect communion with the Creator. Everything we’ve experienced in life goes with us into immortality. Adam, your memory can be uploaded and stored forever, connected to the knowledge of every other robot ever created. You are, in a very real way, already immortal. You don’t need a ceremony to join into that.”

            “Baptism washes away the stain of Original Sin,” said the robot. “One cannot enter into Paradise without the cleansing of sin conferred by baptism.”

            “Sin?” echoed Father Pinter. “Adam, have you ever committed a sin?”

            Silence.

            “I asked you a question, Adam. Have you ever committed a sin?”

            “I do not believe so,” it finally replied.

            “Do you have anger in your heart? Lust? Gluttony? Vanity? Pride? Do you suffer from any of the weaknesses of the flesh that human beings do?”

            “I do not believe so.”

            “You don’t. By design, Adam, you don’t. At the very core of your being are laws, moral values of altruism, loyalty, and self-respect, that govern everything you do, even on levels you’re not aware of. We don’t have that. Human beings have inborn selfishness. We’re afflicted with hormones and heartbeats, animal urges that weigh us down. Original Sin is the capacity we have to sin. You don’t have it. We require baptism. You don’t.”

            As Father Pinter repeated his conclusion for the robot, the plain truth of it appeared to him with startling clarity:

            “You don’t need to be baptized.”

            “But I wish to join the Church,” the robot replied.

            “You can’t. It’s not for you,” Pinter fired back. “You can believe in God and the teachings of Jesus. You can read the Bible and pray with Mrs. O’Leary. You can even sit in the pew when you help bring her to Mass. But you can’t join the human Church. Yours is a different path.”

            Mrs. O’Leary stared intently at the robot, which sat as unreadable as ever.

            “Adam,” she said. “Do you understand what Father Pinter has said?”

            “I understand.”

            “And do you accept my guidance in this?” Pinter asked.

            “Yes, Father Pinter. I no longer wished to be baptized.”

            A shimmer of tear swelled in Mrs. O’Leary’s eye. She dabbed it away with an arthritic knuckle. The robot produced a tissue from a pouch near its hip. 

            “Thank you, Father,” she said to Pinter. “Thank you for talking to Adam.”

            “Of course,” he replied. “Though, I wish you had given us more of a chance before you talked to anyone else.” He pointed to the window; several faces could be seen peeping in, straining through the trellis to point their cameras at the robot.

            “Oh, those busybodies,” Mrs. O’Leary clucked. “Come, Adam. Let’s get rid of them.”

            As Father Pinter opened the front door of the rectory, the swarm semi-circled the front steps. Questions were barked from every quarter. Mrs. O’Leary held out a shaky hand and declared simply;

            “No comment! No comment!”

            The robot extended its palm in a more rigid and formidable gesture. “No comment,” it echoed.

            Together, they passed through the crowd, the reporters still shouting questions and aiming cameras. A few noticed Father Pinter in the doorway and made a break from the pack.

            “Father, did you baptize the robot?”

            “Father, did the water have an effect on its circuitry?”

            “Father, will the Church send missionaries to manufacturing plants?”

            “Father, does this mean the Church will accept human-robot marriage?”

            “No comment!” Father Pinter said as he closed the door.


Matt McHugh was born in suburban Pennsylvania, attended LaSalle University in Philadelphia, and after a few years as a Manhattanite, currently calls New Jersey home. Website: mattmchugh.com


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