Religious leaders are afforded great respect in society and often comment on matters of moral and ethical importance. They routinely offer opinions on family life, adoption, abortion, social values, and even scientific research.
But what is it that gives them that respect? Are they exceptionally gifted in matters of moral philosophy? Do they have extensive experience in family matters, or a deep understanding of the scientific issues? Before accepting someone as an expert, we would normally expect them to show a high level of competence, perhaps some evidence of exceptional ability or knowledge, some capability well beyond the average. A medical specialist will be expected to have worked in the field for many years, working with diverse cases, conducting research, consistently producing high-quality results. But do religious leaders get their credibility from their skills or from somewhere else?
When families are in crisis, we expect the therapist to have studied psychology, possibly even be a medically trained psychiatrist, with a deep understanding of conflict resolution. When working with troubled adolescents, again we expect the therapist to have expertise in psychology and in dealing with young people.
But religious leaders typically rise through the ranks of a hierarchy, attaining leadership by internal selection, with criteria that are religious rather than meritocratic. In the case of the Pope, his authority rests on his position in the hierarchy, attained through strict adherence to dogma. He is himself dogmatically claimed to be infallible.
In the case of Imams in Islam, they are experts in the Qur'an and the Hadith, and since these books define Islamic morality, they therefore are automatically seen as experts in morality and ethics. But the source is dogma, and not social and political practice.
For religious institutions, the morality to be defined and defended is derived from religious books. But is that where moral and ethical values really come from?
Suppose that a religious leader condemned a life-saving practice for dogmatic reasons. That creates a dilemma for believers. Do they follow the demands of the religion, or overrule them and act ethically and morally in the eyes of society? Does religious teaching overrule what feels socially and morally right? This is exactly the sort of dilemma that religious people often face, whether the issue is abortion, stem cell research, or the use of condoms in the fight against AIDS.