On the possibility of a dolphin pope

14.59, Tuesday 6 Apr 2021

I was looking through this gallery of popemobiles and it occurred to me that, with the transparent, upright, contained tank, this form is ideally shaped to transport a future aquatic pope. Let’s say, a dolphin.

What are the obstacles to cetacean papacy?

The pope is the bishop of Rome and, in Catholicism, only men may be bishops. (Though Mary, of course, is fundamental to the church). There’s a quote from Pope Francis on the Wikipedia page about the ordination of women which I love simply for the language:

In Catholic ecclesiology there are two dimensions to think about… The Petrine dimension, which is from the Apostle Peter, and the Apostolic College, which is the pastoral activity of the bishops, as well as the Marian dimension, which is the feminine dimension of the Church.

So female dolphins are probably excluded from elevation.

Being non-human may prove another hurdle. Dolphins are animals, so their capacity will be questioned. But if we take a hypothetical extraterrestrial of human-equivalent sentience, even they may not be admitted to the church:

If aliens exist, they may be a different life form that does not need Christ’s redemption, the Vatican’s chief astronomer said. …

“God became man in Jesus in order to save us. So if there are also other intelligent beings, it’s not a given that they need redemption. They might have remained in full friendship with their creator,” he said.

So let’s say we were to limit ourselves to male dolphins, even if we then determined that dolphins were capable of reciting scripture (or whatever our definition of sentience is), they may be still disqualified for not being in need of redemption.

Some other faiths allow for a greater divergence between leaders and followers. In Sikhism, after a lineage of 10 humans, the title of Guru was passed to the community itself (as previously discussed).

And more generally, away from the idea of leadership and thinking about the operations of worship, there are already some robots that perform religious rituals (in Vox):

In hospice settings, elderly Buddhists who don’t have people on hand to recite prayers on their behalf will use devices known as nianfo ji – small machines about the size of an iPhone, which recite the name of the Buddha endlessly.


In 2017, Indians rolled out a robot that performs the Hindu aarti ritual, which involves moving a light round and round in front of a deity.


For years now, people who can’t afford to pay a human priest to perform a funeral have had the option to pay a robot named Pepper to do it at a much cheaper rate.

Also, from that same Vox article, a comment from Ilya Delio, a Franciscan sister who holds two PhDs and a chair in theology at Villanova University:

“The Catholic notion would say the priest is ontologically changed upon ordination. Is that really true?” she asked. Maybe priestliness is not an esoteric essence but a programmable trait that even a “fallen” creation like a robot can embody. “We have these fixed philosophical ideas and AI challenges those ideas – it challenges Catholicism to move toward a post-human priesthood.” (For now, she joked, a robot would probably do better as a Protestant.)

Delio is probably joking about BlessU-2, an automated blessing robot from the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau.

Delio continues: We tend to think in an either/or framework: It’s either us or the robots. But this is about partnership, not replacement. It can be a symbiotic relationship – if we approach it that way.

Human/robot symbiosis. This is Garry Kasparov’s concept of centaurs, originally from chess: Rather than half-horse, half-human, a centaur chess player is one who plays the game by marrying human intuition, creativity and empathy with a computer’s brute-force ability to remember and calculate a staggering number of chess moves, countermoves and outcomes.

So maybe the future is not dolphin popes but centaur popes: A singular human pope in the Vatican, with a hundred or a thousand machine popes travelling the world, issuing blessings and on-the-ground decrees wherever required.

And then if one day the human pope were to recede into the background, maybe never seen again, but a century later in 2121 the role of pope was still functionally maintained by the papal swarm, actually way more efficiently now, visiting cities, ordaining bishops, ostensibly semi-autonomous like so many Martian rovers, perhaps there’s a frail hand behind the curtain or perhaps not, it’s best not to ask too closely, would we even notice the change? Would we even mind?

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