Fact Check

Do Photos Show Pope Francis Meeting with 'Satanic Priests'?

There's a reason The New York Times described Pope Francis as "the star of A.I.-generated photos."

Published Apr 12, 2023

Photos authentically show Pope Francis shaking hands with “satanic priests.”

In April 2023, images of Pope Francis shaking hands with devilish-looking individuals described as "satanic priests" went viral. "They criticize #PapaFrancisco for having greeted a satanic priest in Bergamo #Italia," one viral tweet in Spanish (via Google translate) read. "What do you think?

Another viral tweet paired that photo with a similar one, writing the caption, "sin comentarios!!" ("no comment!!"). 

These images were not real. They were created by artificial intelligence (AI) software that generates images from text prompts, evidenced by their dubious inclusion of apparently supernatural satanic figures and the fact that the purported meeting was not documented anywhere other than these random social media posts.

Based on a reverse-image search, the earliest posting occurred on April 5. Other tweets from that day included two images of the pope at some imagined satanic temple. In one case, an image appeared to show Francis talking, somewhat implausibly, to Satan himself:

The viral images were included in a roundup post of the "best images" of the pope "created by artificial intelligence," published by the Mexican sports outlet Récord. 

Further, the timing and content of these posts was consistent with an online trend of using AI to place Francis in counterintuitive locations and outfits. For example, in late March 2023, Snopes debunked a viral AI-generated image of Francis in a puffy white jacket. As the New York Times reported on April 8, Francis has become a common subject of this emerging technology at the time of this reporting:

Francis's prevalence in A.I.-generated images is the result of a perfect storm of factors, religious experts said. After 10 years as the head of the Catholic Church, he is instantly recognizable around the world. He is viewed as a more approachable leader than his harder-line predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. And when combined with a sudden burst of interest in new A.I. tools, Francis — who in real life is often pictured in formal settings — became the recurring choice of creators to place in the most incongruous scenarios.

Because the timing and content of these photos were consistent with an online trend of creating AI images of Francis, the images were associated with other apparently AI-created photos, and at least one other media outlet labeled the images as created by AI, the claim that these photos were authentic is "False."


b.luna. "Papa Francisco: Las mejores imágenes creadas por la Inteligencia Artificial de Su Santidad." Record.com.mx, 7 Apr. 2023, https://www.record.com.mx/contra/papa-francisco-las-mejores-imagenes-creadas-por-la-inteligencia-artificial-de-su-santidad.

Huang, Kalley. "Why Pope Francis Is the Star of A.I.-Generated Photos." The New York Times, 8 Apr. 2023. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/08/technology/ai-photos-pope-francis.html.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.