In 2005, Bishop Fernando Lugo resigned as ordinary of the Diocese of San Pedro, and assumed the title of Bishop Emeritus. On March 29th the former bishop launched himself into the political realm by leading a protest in Asuncion and was soon after asked by Pedro Fadul Niella, leader of the “Patria Querida” (Beloved Homeland) political party, to lead a national unity coalition with the goal of promoting Lugo as the single presidential candidate during the 2008 elections.
As he began to take a greater role in Patria Querida’s politics the bishop began preparing a letter requesting his release from the clerical state. That letter, asking the Vatican to officially announce that he would no longer be considered a bishop or priest was eventually sent on December 18, 2006. At the same time that the was writing the letter, however, the bishop was still participating liturgical events, such as the diocesan celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Caacupe on December 8.
On December 21st , Bishop Lugo received a private letter from Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, asking him not to accept the a nomination to run for the Presidency of Paraguay and warning him that if he went ahead he would be subject, “as a first step, to the canonical penalty of suspension, which prohibits sacred ministers from exercising all or some of the acts of the power of order and of the power of governance, as outlined in canon 1333, § 1.”
Ignoring this warning, Bishop Lugo publicly announced on December 25th 2006, his intentions to enter the political arena, whether in an insignificant role or “as a candidate for President of the Republic.”
On January 4th, Cardinal Re officially responded to the letter sent by Bishop Lugo on December 18th. The Cardinal said that the Holy See did not accept his reasons and that “the Holy Father does not deem it possible to accept the request for release from the clerical state presented by Your Excellency.” Re’s letter invited him to remain faithful to his divine vocation and to his apostolic mission.
Since that time Bishop Lugo continued to be actively involved in politics, thus bringing about a statement from the Congregation for Bishops, which on January 20th 2007, decreed his suspension from public ministry and notified him that “with this penal sanction you remain in the clerical state and are still obligated by the duties inherit therein, although you are suspended from the exercise of the sacred ministry.”
The Bishops’ Conference of Paraguay issued a statement of supporting the decree of the Congregation for Bishops without further commentary.
Answers from the Vatican
Canonists note that Canon 287 of the Code of Canon Law states that clerics “are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”
Bishop Lugo argued that his release from the clerical state was for the common good, which earned him the following response from the Holy See in its letter of January 4th, 2007: “You cite canon 287, § 2 of the Code of Canon Law in order to take an active role in politics, but the exception to the general prohibition set forth in the aforementioned canon is not applicable in your case.”
“The collaboration of the bishop,” the letter from the Vatican continued, “in procuring the good of civil society should always be carried out in a pastoral manner, acting as father, brother and friend and helping with his ministry to build pathways of justice and of reconciliation, as is rightly outlined in the Apostolic Exhortation ‘Pastores gregis.’”
Moreover, the letter from Cardinal Re emphasized, “In light of such considerations, 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’.”
Another argument used by Bishop Lugo was based on canon 187, which says, “Anyone responsible for oneself (sui compos) can resign from an ecclesiastical office for a just cause.”
Cardinal Re responded to this argument saying, “In your letter, citing canon 187, Your Excellency ‘resigns from the ecclesial ministry’ in order to ‘return to the lay state in the Church.’ This canon is not congruent with your request, in that it refers to the resignation ‘from an ecclesiastical office,’ which is something very different from the clerical state that originates in sacred ordination.”
“You know well,” the letter stated, “that one sacred ordinations 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).”
The experts speak
Experts consulted by CNA note that canon 290 states, “Once validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid. A cleric, nevertheless, loses the clerical state: 1) by a judicial sentence or administrative decree, which declares the invalidity of sacred ordination; 2) by the penalty of dismissal lawfully imposed; 3) by rescript of the Apostolic See which grants it to deacons only for grave causes and to presbyters only for most grave causes.”
They also noted that suspension from the clerical state “is never granted to bishops, as the fullness of the priesthood received in episcopal ordination demands the maximum degree of fidelity to Christ and to the Church for all of one’s life, as well as consistency with the obligations freely assumed during priestly ordination, and more so during episcopal ordination.”
This is the irrefutable canonical reason for which, according to the experts, Cardinal Re concludes his letter emphatically: “I must fulfill my duty to notify you that the Holy Father does not deem it possible to accept the request for release from the clerical state presented by Your Excellency.”
Bishop Lugo “has lost his rights but not his obligations. The only way to lose his rights and obligations is through interdict, which is almost excommunication, and through excommunication from the Mystical Body. He is also released from all obligations and rights if he decides to apostatize from the faith,” experts said.
Moreover, as bishop, he continues to be a minister of the Catholic Church and therefore is constitutionally impeded from exercising any political function.
According to experts, the very fact of being a minister of the Catholic Church constitutes an impediment to participating as a political candidate according to current law in Paraguay.
.- Experts in Canon Law consulted by CNA – including some from Paraguay who preferred to remain anonymous - have confirmed that from the standpoint of the Code of Canon Law former Bishop Fernando Lugo is in a state of rebellion against the Catholic Church. Lugo, who is running for his country’s presidency, is also constitutionally impeded from participating in politics according to the experts.