Image: Fernando Lugo
Jorge Saenz  /  AP
With a yerba mate drink in hand, Paraguay's President-elect Fernando Lugo visits with Aleida Guevara, daughter of Argentine-born revolutionary hero Ernesto Che Guevara in Asuncion on Monday.
updated 7/30/2008 3:45:53 PM ET 2008-07-30T19:45:53

Paraguay's president-elect has received unprecedented permission from the pope to resign as bishop, the papal nuncio said Wednesday, ending a dispute over Fernando Lugo's priestly status.

Church officials earlier insisted that Lugo, 57, would always be a bishop under church law.

"This is the first case within the church in which a bishop receives a dispensation," Nuncio Orlando Antonini said at a news conference. "Yes, there have been many other priests the pope has left in the status of layman, but never a member of the hierarchy until today."

Lugo also made history with April's presidential election victory, which ended the 61-year rule of the Colorado Party in Paraguay. The former "bishop of the poor" takes office on Aug. 15.

"It's a great pain for the church to lose a bishop, a priest whom we tried to dissuade from the political option up to the last day of his election campaign," Antonini said. "But the Holy Father recognized that he was elected by the majority of the people to lead Paraguay for the next five years."

First resigned in 2004
Lugo resigned as bishop of San Pedro in 2004 and said he had resigned from the status of bishop itself in 2006, when he decided to run for president. That alarmed church leaders who said it violated papal rules against priestly involvement in politics.

The president of the Paraguayan Bishops Conference, Ignacio Gogorza, told the newspaper Ultima Hora in 2006 that Lugo might even be excommunicated for his plunge into politics.

"A bishop does not stop being a bishop just because he resigns," Gogorza said at the time.

Antonini said Wednesday's announcement follows "long analysis" by Vatican experts in canon law.

Lugo remains a member of the church and was not excommunicated, unlike former Zambian Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo, who was excommunicated in 2006 after ordaining married men as priests and taking a wife himself.

No returning to priesthood
The nuncio said the decision is final: Lugo "cannot return to his earlier condition as a cleric." Lugo earlier had suggested he would like to be bishop again after serving as president.

Lugo, speaking to journalists outside his offices, thanked Pope Benedict XVI "for a decision that has not been easy to take." He said the pope's letter declaring his decision said that he was "thinking of the good of the country, thinking of Paraguay."

Antonini said Lugo even "was freed from the vow of chastity. That is to say, like any other layman, if he wants, he could contract matrimony under civil law." Lugo has not indicated any wish to marry, and his sister Mercedes is to serve as first lady.

He has also maintained an austere lifestyle, even wearing the sort of sandals he used as a priest, and apparently remains devout.

Lugo's niece, Mirta Maidana, who serves as an aide to the incoming first lady, announced this week that the president's office would reopen a Catholic chapel at the presidential residence that had been closed under outgoing President Nicanor Duarte, a Mennonite. She said the chapel would be open to the public.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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