A bishop for president

Tomorrow, April 20, if the opinion polls are predictive, the next president of Paraguay may well be a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church.  Fernando Lugo, who has been called “bishop of the poor,” resigned as bishop of the diocese of San Pedro in 2005 to become a full-time politician. The Vatican suspended him from his clerical duties but staunchly rejected his resignation, telling him that “once sacred ordination is validly received, it cannot be annulled and it cannot even be suspended ‘ad tempos’, as the Sacrament of Orders imprints an indelible and permanent character (canon 1008).”

This was the rebel bishop’s reply: “The Church can either accept my decision or punish me. But I am in politics already.”

The 58-year-old Lugo was ordained a priest of the Society of the Divine Word in 1977, at the height of the brutal and corrupt dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner.  He was appointed a bishop in 1994 at the age of 45.  Three of his brothers were forced into exile during the Stroessner regime.  He himself spent many years in Ecuador working with indigenous communities.  Like many of the young priests of his generation, he was inspired by liberation theology.

Constitutional democracy returned to Paraguay in 1989, the year Stroessner was overthrown by his own friend and comrade-in-arms, General Andres Rodriguez.  The Stroessner regime was in power for

35 years, standing on the twin pillars of the military and the Colorado Party, Latin America’s oldest political party.  General Rodriguez’s coup, the result of an intra-elite conflict, was backed by the Catholic Church and the United States.  Stroessner fled to neighboring Brazil, attempted to return to his country, but died in exile.

Not surprisingly, the Colorado Party adopted Gen. Rodriguez as its new leader and made him president of the country.  New political parties flourished in a multi-party setting, and the ban on presidential re-election was restored.  But little else changed in Paraguay’s political order.  It remained a society ruled by the oligarchy, represented by the dominant Colorado Party which has been in power continuously for 61 years.  Under Stroessner, Paraguay became the hub of smuggling in the Latin American continent, the source of all kinds of contraband – from cocaine to luxury cars to coffee.  The proceeds lined the pockets of politicians, the rich, and the military.

The situation of the poor barely changed with the return of elite democracy.  Seventy-seven percent of agricultural land remains in the hands of only one percent of Paraguay’s landowners.  Forty percent of farmers owning less than five hectares control no more than 1% of the total arable land.  Rural poverty is rampant, and peasants are moving out of the countryside.  Many of them desperately find work as illegal migrants in the neighboring countries.

“In Paraguay, there are only thieves and the victims of thieves,” said Bishop Lugo in a recent interview.  “The time has come to take exclusion, oblivion, and discrimination from the Paraguayan social life.”  Statements like this frighten the Paraguayan oligarchy; they are haunted by images of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.  But Lugo defies conventional ideological labels.  “I am not of the left, nor of the right,” he declares.  “I’m in the middle as a candidate sought by many people.”

His political agenda, nevertheless, is very much of the Center-Left. He vows to “clean-up the political system.”  Agrarian reform is his top priority.  He is critical of the presence of US troops in his country, and objects to the granting of immunity to American soldiers participating in joint military exercises.  He advocates the reassertion of national sovereignty in the utilization of energy resources.

Interestingly, Bishop Lugo, who is running under the Patriotic Alliance for Change, is locked in a dead-heat race against the candidate of the government party – Blanca Ovelar, a former minister of education – and a former general, Lino Oviedo of the National Union of Ethical Citizens.  This situation recalls the fascinating contest for the governorship of Pampanga in 2007, where the Catholic priest Fr. Eddie T. Panlilio narrowly defeated Lilia Pineda of Kampi and Mark Lapid of Lakas – both loyal allies of the Arroyo government.

Like Among Ed’s gubernatorial bid in Pampanga, Bishop Lugo’s presidential run in Paraguay is happening at a time when the Church is re-conceptualizing its role in the modern world.  In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Latin America’s priests found themselves in the political arena, standing with the victims of power at great risk to their own lives. Today, the Church is reminding them of the strict meaning of their pastoral role.  In January 2007, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, wrote Bishop Lugo:

“You surely understand how much the service of bishops differs from that of the person who exercises a political role.  You rightly observe that politics is a form of charity, but it has its own role, laws and ends, quite distinct from the mission of a bishop, who is called to illuminate all areas of society with the Gospel and to form consciences.  The bishop’s task is to proclaim Christian hope, in order to defend the dignity of each person, to protect and proclaim with firmness those values that the Holy Father has defined as ‘non-negotiables’.”

Bishop Lugo’s response is straightforward: “I have freely and in good conscience renounced my priestly ministry.  What I have freely decided to do cannot be judged by others.”  I like this man. The Church has lost a prince, but Paraguay has gained a statesman.


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