Paraguayan bishop crosses point of no return on church and politics

New York

In much of the developing world, the Catholic Church plays a robust political role, especially in societies where the political class is perceived as corrupt, or democracy is under-developed, leaving the church as the only meaningful expression of civil society.

Recent weeks have brought a reminder of the point in the Philippines, for example, where the powerful Catholic Bishops Conference has opposed plans by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to change the country’s constitution, seen by some as a bid to extend her stay in office beyond 2010, when her six-year term expires. The bishops led a “prayer rally” on Sunday in Manila in opposition to the proposed revisions.

The Filipino bishops have been involved in “people power” revolts that have ousted two presidents since 1986.

Yet even in a climate where the “wall” of separation between church and state is more like a porous membrane, there is still a nec plus ultra for Catholic clergy, a point of no return – to wit, explicitly running for, or holding, political office.

Famously, Ernesto Cardenal crossed that line by serving as Minister of Culture under the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and was publicly rebuked by Pope John Paul II during his 1983 trip to the country.

This week, another Catholic clergyman stepped across it in Paraguay, in this case a bishop – Fernando Lugo, emeritus bishop of the impoverished San Pedro diocese in the north of this country of 5.8 million, almost 90 percent of whom are Catholic.

Like Cardenal, Lugo in some ways incarnates the spirit of “liberation theology,” the movement in Latin American Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that sought to align the church with struggles for social change. Lugo is known in Paraguay for his advocacy for the rural poor, and for his embrace of the “base community” movement.

On Dec. 21, Lugo announced that he had resigned from the Catholic priesthood, and on Christmas Day he announced that he will lead the political opposition as a candidate for the presidency of Paraguay in 2008 elections.

“My resignation is painful, but at the same time it makes me happy,” Lugo said. “From today on, my cathedral will be the country.”

Lugo’s candidacy is an effort to end 61 years of uninterrupted rule by the conservative Partido Colorado, the political force once associated with the dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner, who ruled Paraguay from 1954 to 1989.Lugo is widely seen as perhaps the lone figure capable of unifying the opposition parties, labor groups and civic associations.

Back in September, when it seemed that Paraguay’s President Nicanor Duarte might seek a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for re-election, polls gave Lugo a 15-point edge over the incumbent.

Broadly speaking, Lugo is seen as a left-leaning figure critical of perceived social injustices in Paraguay, and some have suggested that his candidacy might attract the support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as part of his efforts to construct a “leftist axis,” with anti-U.S. undertones, in Latin American politics.

Lugo, however has insisted that he is not part of broader ideological movement.

“Ideology is in second place,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m on the left or the right, neither above nor below.”

Even if Lugo has resigned the priesthood, theologically the Catholic Church still regards him as a bishop, and his political ambitions have not warmed the hearts of Vatican officials. On Tuesday, the Apostolic Nuncio in Asuncion released the text of a letter to Lugo from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops in Rome, warning of “canonical sanctions” should Lugo proceed.

The letter appears to have been written before Lugo announced his resignation from the priesthood, since Re warned of the suspension of Lugo’s priestly faculties as a “first sanction.”

Lugo’s resignation moots that possibility, but the Vatican may envision other forms of public disapproval. This week, Lugo seemed Stoic about the possibility. The pope, he said, “can either accept my decision or punish me. But I am in politics already.”

Lugo’s fellow bishops in Paraguay have issued a statement saying that it’s not their role to back, or to oppose, any specific political candidates.

Lugo has long had an ambivalent relationship with church officialdom. Appointed to head the San Pedro diocese in 1994, a surprise resignation was announced in 2004, when Lugo was only 53. The move was attributed to “health reasons.” (At the time, Lugo said he had undergone four operations and suffered from thrombosis). Nevertheless, he remained remarkably active in the country’s affairs, chairing a coalition of civic associations and NGOs which eventually put him forward as a political candidate.

Press reports in Paraguay indicate a history of tension between Lugo and the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Orlando Antonini, including complaints that Lugo’s brother allegedly has ties to a left-wing guerilla movement, and rumors of an allegedly inappropriate personal relationship between the bishop and a high-profile Paraguayan woman.

Such questions, Paraguayan analysts were suggesting this week, will now become fodder for public dissection as Lugo faces the "slings and arrows" of political life. At the same time, most political experts say that if anyone has a legitimate shot at ending the one-party rule that has long dominated Paraguay, it's Lugo.

Among other things, if Lugo pulls it off, diplomatic relations between Paraguay and the Holy See should become interesting indeed.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here