Religion in the news

Asuncion, Paraguay - A charismatic leader dubbed the "Bishop of the Poor" is an early favorite to make history as the first man to serve as a Roman Catholic bishop, then be elected president of his country.

The Vatican is not pleased, and it's not alone: Fernando Lugo's candidacy not only tests the church's strict prohibition on clergy seeking political office, it also challenges the established elites in Paraguay. The nation's poor majority feels disenfranchised after 60 years of unbroken rule by President Nicanor Duarte's Colorado Party.

Although there's a long way to go before next April's presidential election, polls show Lugo has support from nearly 40 percent of voters, 10 percentage points ahead of his closest rival. Thousands turn out at his rallies, sometimes on horse-drawn wagons, chanting "Lugo, si!" at his vows to end one-party rule.

Like many Paraguayans, Lugo blames the Colorados for the struggling economy, rampant corruption and politics that favor rich elites in the landlocked, agrarian nation.

"I believe the official party is responsible for the poverty, the corruption and the dishonesty in this country," Lugo said, stroking a trim gray beard during an interview at his brother's home. "We need a country that's more just and more equitable."

Lugo, who resigned as bishop in December to sidestep Paraguay's constitutional ban on clergy seeking office, sees politics as a solution to the problems of his former flock in the San Pedro region. He spent nearly 11 years there, ministering to hungry peasants who toil in cotton and soybean fields of rich landowners.

"We did everything possible there to help the people out of poverty and misery," he said.

Lugo used his pulpit to rally the poor to help themselves. He hasn't said exactly what he would do as president, but he said recent travels indicate people want agrarian reform, industrial production and more jobs. And in a trip to Washington, he insisted that he's nothing like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"Chavez is a military man and I have a religious background," Lugo told reporters. "My candidacy has arisen at the request of the people, it was born in a different way than Hugo Chavez's."

Lugo's upstart campaign gained significant organizational support when he agreed last month to accept a running mate from the Authentic Radical Liberals, Paraguay's main opposition party, which has spent decades challenging Colorado rule and can help finance and mount a nationwide campaign.

Nonetheless, several smaller opposition parties have not said whether they would unite behind Lugo, and his bid could be derailed in court. Duarte has yet to file a legal challenge, which must be declared before a Nov. 28 registration deadline, but the president has repeatedly criticized Lugo while backing former education minister Blanca Ovelar as the Colorados' candidate.

"That candidacy is unconstitutional," said Duarte, who as a sitting president is constitutionally barred from seeking immediate re-election. "Lugo is a member of the clergy who doesn't know if he's a bishop or what."

Lugo said such statements show the political establishment's fear.

"If I had only 2 (percent) or 3 percent in the polls, nobody would be challenging me," he said. "I believe the Colorado Party, not wanting to leave the perks of power, is going to throw up any arguments it can to stop this candidacy."

The Vatican has refused to accept Lugo's resignation, saying bishophood is "for life," and the head of the Paraguayan Bishops Conference has suggested Lugo risks excommunication if he keeps up his campaign.

The Vatican came down even harder against Haiti's first democratically elected leader, Jean Bertrand Aristide, a leftist priest and strong advocate of liberation theology who was expelled by his conservative Salesian order for preaching class struggle. When soldiers ousted Aristide in 1991, the Vatican was the only foreign state to recognize the military regime.

Also, Pope John Paul II famously admonished a Jesuit priest appointed Nicaragua's culture minister with a wag of his finger. And Jesuit priest Robert Drinan represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Congress for 11 years until the Vatican officially said he should not hold the post, and he stepped down.

"Merely seeking a job in government causes problems for the Vatican, let alone running for president," explained Georgetown University theologian Thomas Reese. "This is way outside the bounds of what the Vatican wants clergy to do. Sacramentally, he is a priest forever once he's ordained."

Pope Benedict XVI weighed in during his trip to Latin America, telling a bishops conference that the "political task is not the immediate competence of the Church." Benedict also has taken a hard line against liberation theology, a Catholic movement that remains strong in Latin America, which holds that Christianity's central mission is to free the poor from oppression.

Lugo said liberation theology is just one of many influences on his thinking, and noted that former popes have called responsible politics a "healthy and just activity."

"I have freely and in good conscience renounced my priestly ministry," he said. "What I have freely decided to do cannot be judged by others."

Dozens of peasant, farm, labor, Indian and leftist groups back Lugo, but he resists ideological labels, saying for example that he embraces "socially responsible" capitalism.

"I am not of the left, nor of the right. I'm in the middle as a candidate sought by many people," he said.

Paraguayan political analyst Alcibiades Gonzalez Delvalle characterizes Lugo as a moderate, more pragmatist than ideologue.

"There are people on the left around him but he doesn't yield to that tendency too much," Gonzalez said. "Lugo has lived in a very poor area where many gripping situations unfolded, and that has made a deep impression."

Lugo's critics say otherwise.

"Underneath that cassock and that big cross he wore on his chest, he was into politics," said Alberto Soljancic, president of Paraguay's powerful Rural Association of large landholders and farmers. He suggested that Lugo's ministry to the poor emboldened landless groups to invade farms in San Pedro, though he did not blame Lugo directly.

He also questioned why Lugo visited communist-run Cuba after launching his campaign: "There are a lot of countries one can visit, but why Cuba?"

Lugo has since traveled to Argentina, the United States and Spain to raise his profile, meet Paraguayan immigrants abroad and seek campaign donations. Meanwhile, many poor Paraguayans say a priest is just the one to lead their country.

"We want a change," said Miriam Aquino, who earns $10 a day selling clothes on the street. "Every president who takes office says many things and then doesn't do anything. There's corruption and we are tired. With Lugo, there's hope."