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Paraguay's president, ex-bishop, granted lay status July 30, 2008

In an unprecedented concession, the Vatican has agreed to laicize the incoming president of Paraguay, a former Catholic bishop.

Fernando Lugo Mendez, who won the presidency handily in April elections, has been granted lay status "because his clerical status is incompatible with serving as president," announced Archbishop Orlando Antonini, the apostolic nuncio in Paraguay. The laicization was authorized by Pope Benedict XVI.

A former Divine Word missionary, Lugo was named Bishop of San Pedro, Paraguay in 1994. He resigned that post in 2005, citing health issues. He is now 58 years old and his health appears to be fine.

In 2006, when he began his drive for the presidency, Lugo said that he wished to resign his status as a bishop. Later he said that he had also resigned from the priesthood-- a move that was deemed necessary to comply with the constitution of Paraguay, which bars clerics from political office.

The Vatican, however, had consistently refused to recognize Lugo's "resignation," pointing out that ordination to the priesthood of episcopacy is irreversible. In February 2007, Bishop Lugo was suspended a divinis because of his refusal to comply with Vatican policy barring priests from partisan political campaigns.

In announcing Lugo's laicization, the nuncio acknowledged that Church leaders had done their best to persuade the sometime bishop to abandon his political plans, "right up to the last day of the campaign." But now, he said, because the majority of Paraguay's voters had chosen Lugo, the Pope granted him lay status to avoid a further conflict.

Immediately after the April election, some observers had suggested that the Vatican could take further disciplinary action against Lugo, possibly including excommunication. Archbishop Antonini assured reporters that Lugo remains a Catholic, although not an active priest.

Lugo will assume office as Paraguay's president on August 15.

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