College students are back in the classroom now that a new academic term has begun—but this year some of them will be tempted to take advantage of a new form of cheating previously unavailable: using A.I., or artificial intelligence. Programs such as Chat GPT are now capable of writing term or research papers on virtually any subject imaginable, using correct grammar and including a bibliography and reference notes (though there’s evidence that sometimes Chat GPT will itself cheat by completely fabricating or making up these notes and references). It’s increasingly difficult for professors to tell if their students’ work is truly their own—which is why many of them now require the students to submit all their outlines, notes, and rough drafts along with the finished paper.
Cheating has always been a problem in education, even at the elementary school level. I once gave a test to an 8th grade class after teaching a series in religion—and a boy was caught cheating on the test. Ironically, the subject of the exam was on conscience and morality. In a New York City public school many years ago a third-grade teacher noticed that twelve boys in her class all gave the same unusual wrong answer to a question on a math test. She didn’t accuse them of cheating, but had them copy out a sentence she wrote on the board—a quote from the 19th century English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, which said: “The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.” This quote, along with the teacher’s simple form of correction, had a profound influence on the boys; years later one of the twelve said, “It was the single most important lesson of my life” (Mark Link, S.J., Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year A, Series I, p. 100). Because of original sin, we are not hardwired or born with an orientation toward honesty and integrity. These are things we have to learn from our families, teachers and other influential adults, and the Church—and those who show others the proper way of truth in a spirit of humility and love play a vital role in the unfolding of God’s plan.
A major reason our society has become so corrupt and morally degraded in comparison to earlier generations of Americans is that, over the last fifty years, Christians have been largely absent from the culture wars—and when traditional religion and morality are silent or missing, evil rushes in to fill the vacuum. God relies on His people to make sure this does not happen. 2500 years ago the Lord appointed the prophet Ezekiel (33:7-9) as a moral watchman, entrusting him with the duty of warning wicked persons of the need to repent—and the prophet by and large fulfilled this sacred duty. As the Gospel of Matthew (18:15-20) indicates, Jesus places on us today this same responsibility of opposing evil and correcting sinners. Certainly there are times when speaking will just make things worse and therefore silence would be more prudent, but that must not be our automatic or default position; we have to let the Holy Spirit guide us in whether or not to speak and, if so, in what to say. There are times when we have to take a stand, showing others by both our words and our deeds that we do not approve of and will not go along with any form of immorality or dishonesty. This is true for us as individuals, and as a Church; it’s how we fulfill St. Paul’s instruction in the Letter to the Romans (13:8-10) to “owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” Remaining silent when sinners are heading toward spiritual destruction is the opposite of loving them. That’s why the Church continues to oppose, and must always oppose, such things as abortion, euthanasia, cohabitation, divorce, same-sex marriage, the LGBTQ agenda, every form of sexual immorality, and other sins now widely accepted and even praised and promoted by our society. As Catholics, we have the sacred duty of witnessing to the truth—especially when this angers or offends the world around us. As another great English historian, Edmund Burke, observed, all that is necessary for evil to prosper is for good people to remain silent and do nothing.
When children badly misbehave in public or in the classroom, that’s usually a sign their parents haven’t been properly correcting and disciplining them at home. When juvenile delinquents and petty criminals keep on committing the same offenses again and again, that’s an indication the criminal justice system isn’t holding them accountable. When self-identified Catholic politicians publicly defend a woman’s so-called “right” to an abortion and even arrogantly claim they’re acting in accord with Church teaching—something a number of Congresspersons have done—that’s probably a sign their pastors and bishops haven’t been fulfilling their duty as moral leaders and teachers. Yes, exercising authority in defense of truth and righteousness will anger and upset some people—but failing to exercise this authority will only make things worse in the long run, giving people the idea that moral standards can be ignored while making it easier for them to travel the popular but spiritually deadly path that leads to eternal damnation.
As the Lord warned the prophet Ezekiel, the watchman will be held accountable for those entrusted to his care—and Jesus has appointed all of us as watchpersons, in one way or another. If the Holy Spirit leads us to correct someone’s fault, we must do so in all charity and humility—as in the case of parents gently inviting their grown children to join them in coming to Mass once again, or in quietly and tactfully suggesting they get married instead of simply living together. If instead the Holy Spirit leads us to withdraw from or disassociate ourselves from certain people—such as those who constantly gossip or say unkind things about others, or generally act in a vulgar or offensive manner—we must do so without thinking ourselves superior or acting judgmentally, even as we pray for these persons’ conversion and well-being. In the Gospel, Jesus not only confirms the Church’s authority to make moral judgments by binding and loosing; He also speaks of the power of prayer—especially when we unite our prayers for the conversion of sinners and the transformation and renewal of our culture. Our Lord promises that He is now present here because we have gathered here in church in His Name. It’s our duty to make sure, by our words, prayers, and example that He is also present in our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and in our world.