Friday, 2 April 2010

Condoms, Islam, Catholicism and Communist style ‘democratic centralism’

Islam is not the only religion in the news these days. Catholics compete for the headlines with new revelations of child abuse in various countries. The scandal has caught up with the Pope's history. He is being compelled to respond forcefully about allegations he played a part in the child abuse cover up.

The atrocious behaviour on kids by Catholic functionaries is not the only reason Catholicism makes the news. The church's stance against the use of condoms is well known. The church advises natural birth control methods or abstinence outside of marriage.
The Catholic ban on the use of condoms is most problematic in Africa where condoms are a critical weapon in fighting the spread of HIV. True to the party line, church officials in Africa condemn the use of condoms under any circumstances.
In fact, in 2007 the head of the Catholic Church in Mozambique claimed that some condoms are deliberately infected with HIV. The claim was made at a time when 500 Mozambique residents were infected with HIV daily, adding to the 16% of the population already HIV positive.
In a television interview a few days ago, the head of the England's Catholics stated that he can understand why some find the argument to use condoms attractive, especially in Africa and the developing world. The comments are bound to cause controversy as they question the unity of church beliefs.
Like any bureaucratic organization, the Catholic Church's centralized structure is both a strength and weakness. The discipline imposed upon Church officials provides a clear objective to all.
Like a well oiled military machine, the Vatican soldier in Angola or Brazil both know exactly what to believe and preach. Irrespective of local cultural considerations, their beliefs are identical.
The 'Party Line' is sacrosanct and violating the 'truth' provides grounds for excommunication. Expulsion means no further corporate advancement towards headquarters in the Vatican and, just as important, a lifetime of guilt for violating God and the Pope's edict.
It must be difficult to live with such guilt.
Islam, on the contrary, can justly be characterized as a 'messy' religion. The religion contains a mass of ulemas constantly issuing opinions on important temporal issues. Forget ulemas, even fake Grand Mooftis barrage their religious compatriots with religiously shrouded arguments on any and all matters!
Islam has no formal bureaucracy and, thus, no single voice to speak on worldly or spiritual themes. Theoretically, any Muslim is qualified to opine on questions of religion. Of course, the ability of a religious scholar from Al-Azhar University to sway public opinion is greater than that of a blogger!
Ultimately, it is the mass of public opinion that matters most in shaping religious beliefs and practices; one reason why Islamic religious bureaucracies (in countries where they exist) tend to be extremely sensitive if not fully subservient to national political leaders.
Struggles between political and religious leaders in the Islamic world are common and generally result in a workable compromise which defines exclusionary spheres of influence for both sets of leaders.
Democratic centralism of the sort practiced by the Vatican is neat and orderly. Contentious debates are resolved behind closed doors. Intellectual sparring is couched in sophisticated and diplomatic language. However, once a policy decision is reached there is no confusion.

European Muslims face with the issue of headscarves and veils in non-Muslim majority societies. Afghan Muslims wrestle with Taliban notions concerning women's rights. Singaporean Muslims contend with religious laws concerning inheritance and the blurring of lines between Malay culture and Muslim practices. Pakistani Muslims synthesize Hindu cultural practices within their own version of Islam.
As with nations, there is no 'one size fits all' solution for religious structures. Democracy is messy and often slowly meanders along at the lowest national common denominator. Authoritarianism makes for rapid advances but frequently in the wrong direction and without regard to long term individual and social costs.
Walking the tightrope between centralization and autonomy requires the dexterity of Olympic gymnasts, not the rigidity found in most religious ideologues.


  1. Interesting perspective of Catholicism and Islam on the basis of their structure. I've never thought of looking at them that way.

  2. Hi ... Thank you for your comment. I hope you found the perspective thought provoking.

    Kind regards,