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Bishop Fernando Lugo Mendez, President of Paraguay

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 28, 2008

The election of a Catholic bishop to the presidency of Paraguay last week presents an interesting problem for the Vatican. Bishop Fernando Lugo Mendez led the San Pedro diocese from 1994 until his resignation in 2005, ostensibly for health reasons, but almost certainly to pursue a political career. Lugo was suspended from episcopal and priestly ministry by the Vatican in February of 2007 because he refused to step away from Paraguayan political campaigns, where he represents the leftist Patriotic Alliance for Change.

Under Paraguayan law, clerics cannot run for political office, but Lugo took the position that he had “resigned” from the priesthood (which is ontologically impossible), and so was permitted to run for President. His election marks the end of 61 years of rule by the Colorado party. Now the Vatican faces the question of what to do about him.

The chance of disciplining Lugo effectively, that is, of applying a penalty which would cause him to forsake politics and return to episcopal ministry, would seem to be remote. The chance of disciplining him in a way which would satisfy public opinion is even more remote, as he has proven to be a very popular candidate. Finally, the Vatican is unlikely to want to hold a whole nation at arm’s length because of its problems with its president. For all these reasons, the best and most likely solution on the part of Rome would be to laicize Lugo.

This is apparently what Lugo wants and, while that is galling, it is hardly a good reason not to do it. Laicization can be applied either as a penalty or as a response to a cleric who seeks to be removed from clerical life for some good reason, including his fundamental unsuitability for clerical life itself. In this sort of case, one would expect laicization as a disciplinary measure, but it does not have to be couched in those terms. Lugo could be laicized at least partly for the sake of accommodating the Paraguayan people, who apparently wish to have him as their President.

The Vatican has had to deal with tricky political situations before, and sometimes it has no moral choice but to oppose a particular ruler. The Pope could excommunicate Lugo, or even place Paraguay under an interdict, two related measures that might have been very effective at one time, in a more Catholic social order. I can sympathize with all who have itchy trigger fingers. But in this case, the best course for everyone would seem to be to laicize Lugo. Then the Vatican would no longer be dealing politically with a bishop, and Paraguay’s remaining bishops could get on with their jobs.

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