Fracas over bishop-president in Paraguay: 'It's the theology, stupid'

New York

I’ve long said that trying to report on Roman Catholicism through the prism of corporate logic or secular politics is like trying to present a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space: inevitably only bits and pieces of the reality come into view, and the resulting picture is often badly distorted.

tThat’s a nice sound-bite so far as it goes, but most people need a concrete example to get the point. Recent days have given us a doozy, in the form of controversy surrounding the election of Fernando Lugo, a former Verbite priest and the emeritus bishop of the San Pedro diocese in Paraguay, as his country’s new president -- a victory which came despite Vatican insistence that Lugo remains a bishop and thus should stay out of the partisan fray.

On the surface it looks like a typical politics story, but in reality the situation can’t be fully understood without some grasp of Catholic theology and canon law, especially concerning what it means to be a bishop.

Here’s the relevant back-story: Lugo, a left-wing populist, has long been a popular figure on the social scene in Paraguay. Activism runs in his veins; his father was arrested 20 times under the regime of former dictator Alfredo Stroessner, and three of his four brothers were expelled from the country. In 1996, Lugo hosted a continent-wide gathering of base communities, the small faith groups dedicated to spiritual formation and political action associated with liberation theology. In 2004, Lugo supported peasants protesting unequal land distribution and the inroads of commercial agriculture.

Talk of Lugo as a presidential candidate began more than three years ago, and ever since the question of his status as a Catholic bishop has been a live wire. Article 235 of Paraguay’s constitution prohibits a religious minister from holding political office, so in 2006 Lugo wrote to the Vatican to ask for “laicization,” meaning release from the clerical state. He then announced that he had resigned his office as a bishop, which was enough under Paraguayan law to allow his candidacy to proceed.

Nonetheless, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops wrote Lugo on January 4, 2007, to inform him that his request was denied. Obviously Lugo chose not to comply, so inevitably news reports since his election are full of talk about tension between the incoming president and Rome.

To date, the standoff has typically been presented in either disciplinary or political terms. Some suggest that the Vatican turned Lugo down on the general principle that it doesn’t want clergy involved in partisan politics (certainly true as far as it goes), or in order to defend the pope’s authority. Others point to Lugo’s left-wing platform to suggest that the Vatican fears the specter of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, or is anxious about a revival of Latin America’s liberation theology movement.

In any case, the suggestion is that saying “no” to Lugo amounts to fussy legalism rooted in ulterior motives. After all, from a purely secular point of view, if a guy is determined to quit, what's the point of refusing to accept – unless, of course, you want to make his life difficult?

What that analysis omits, however, is any distinctively theological dimension to the problem.

Applying that lens, it’s actually not clear that the Vatican could laicize Lugo even if it were so inclined. Canon lawyers can’t point to a single recent example of a bishop being laicized, and although it’s a debated point, there’s a solid argument that it’s simply not possible.

Theologically, sacramental ordination is like a bell that can’t be un-rung. Canon 290 of the Code of Canon Law states clearly: “After it has been validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid.” Nonetheless, a priest can be “laicized,” meaning formally returned to the lay state as a matter of law, even though the permanent “mark” of ordination endures.

For priests and deacons, laicization is seen as an extreme step taken only in serious cases. Priests can petition the Vatican for laicization, for instance if they wish to be married. Granting the request is considered a pontifical act, meaning something the pope has to do personally, and it's considered a favor rather than a right. Priests can also be forcibly laicized if found guilty of a serious offense, as has happened with several notorious abuser-priests in the recent sex abuse scandals. Canon 290 states that laicization can be done “to deacons only for serious reasons, and to presbyters only for the most serious reasons.”

Tellingly, however, canon 290 never refers to laicization of a bishop, as if that option were almost unthinkable.

Some experts believe that omission is based on a significant theological difference between the priesthood and the episcopacy. Put simply, the argument against the possibility of laicizing a bishop comes down to this: the episcopacy represents the “fullness” of sacramental ordination. That’s why bishops can ordain priests and other bishops, while priests cannot. Given that difference, some experts believe the imprint produced by ordination to the episcopacy runs so deep as to be indissolvable, not just metaphysically but legally.

Not every theologian or canon lawyer buys that view, but it seems implicit in the way the Vatican has handled recent cases involving dissident bishops.

Bishops can be removed from office, even involuntarily, by an act of the pope; that happened in 1995, for example, with French Bishop Jacques Gaillot, whom John Paul II removed from the Évreux diocese and assigned to the titular see of Partenia. Gaillot is known as the “red cleric” for liberal views at odds with official Catholic teaching on a wide variety of matters.

In Gaillot’s case, however, he was simply assigned to a non-existent diocese – he was never laicized. Gaillot remains a valid Roman Catholic bishop.

If the Vatican felt free to laicize bishops, it would probably already have happened several times, particularly in cases where renegade bishops have illicitly ordained priests and other bishops, thereby creating the basis for a full-blown schism. First in line might well be Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, the Zambian faith-healer and exorcist who has broken with Rome and ordained bishops as part of his “Married Priests Now!” movement. From Rome’s point of view, however, Milingo remains a bishop and hence his ordinations are technically valid, even if the Vatican has announced that it will never grant legal faculties to the men who have been ordained.

To be sure, there are experts who take the contrary view, that a bishop could be laicized if the pope really wanted to do so.

Some point to canon 1405, for example, which gives the pope authority to judge bishops in penal cases. Given that laicization is provided for as a penalty in canon law, these canonists say, there’s no reason in principle it couldn’t be applied to a bishop, even if prudence and respect for the episcopal office counsel restraint. Others cite an 1862 rite published by Pope Benedict XIV for the “degradation of a bishop,” which seems to involve the ritual casting out of a bishop from the episcopal state. All the symbols of office, such as the mitre and pallium, are removed, and the bishop’s fingers and head are even ritually scraped with a knife to signify the removal of the anointing imparted in his ordination ceremony.

For now, the relevant point is that there’s an active theological and canonical debate inside Catholicism about the very possibility of laicizing a bishop. Saying “no” to Lugo, therefore, is not just about grinding axes or scoring political points, but also respecting the theological and canonical complexities.t

To be crystal clear, none of this is intended to suggest that the Vatican’s recalcitrance is entirely innocent of political motives, or that there aren’t good theological arguments for laicizing bishops. Those questions will be the object of much legitimate discussion for some time to come.

What the current fracas does illustrate, however, is that in trying to understand why the Church does what it does, it’s incumbent upon observers to take seriously its own inner logic. Otherwise, important pieces of the picture will forever remain out of focus. Applied to Lugo’s situation, the bottom line might well be: “It’s the theology, stupid.”

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