ASUNCION (Reuters Life!) - A Roman Catholic bishop who shed his cassock to run for Paraguay's presidency has polarized the Church, with some backing him as a force for change and others saying he violated age-old doctrine.
Fernando Lugo is leading the polls ahead of an April 2008 vote in Paraguay, a landlocked South American country of 5.6 million people, which is one of the region's poorest.
Lugo stepped down as bishop last year and the Vatican suspended him, but he remains a priest under Canon law because the Catholic Church views ordination as a lifelong sacrament.
"Within the Church, there was a mixed reaction to Lugo's foray into the political arena," said Enrique Caceres, assistant dean at the Catholic University in Asuncion.
"On the one hand, an important group of Catholics accepts him and hopes he will bring about long-awaited change, while others believe this is not a pastor's role," he said.
Paraguay's constitution bars religious leaders from running for president, and members of the ruling Colorado Party once threatened to challenge Lugo's candidacy on the grounds that he was still a priest.
The Catholic Church is seen as one of the most trustworthy institutions in Paraguay, where corruption is rampant.
Lugo is especially popular with the poor in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. He defends his decision to enter politics, describing it as the only way he can help bring about real change.
His presidential bid has put church leaders in a difficult position. In August, the Paraguayan Episcopal Conference felt obliged to say it did not back any candidates in the race, while urging that parishes not be used for party politics.
Josefa Ratti, an 80-year-old practicing Catholic, said she supports Lugo because she is fed up with the Colorado Party, which has governed Paraguay for more than 60 years.
"It's time for a leader who cares about people, and not just his wallet," Ratti said. "I don't know if Lugo understands much about politics but at least he's a good person."
Others are not impressed. "A bishop shouldn't stop being a bishop just because he wants to. That is being dishonest with Catholics. I think (Lugo) took advantage of the Church and turned his back on it as a priest, and that is unforgivable," said Arturo Ramirez, a 55-year-old shopkeeper.
President Nicanor Duarte Frutos, who has been highly critical of the former bishop, said last week that Lugo's participation in the election would give the contest more legitimacy.
But the Paraguayan president also took a jab at Lugo after meeting with Pope Benedict in Rome last Monday, saying his candidacy had upset some Vatican officials.
Duarte is backing his former education minister, Blanca Ovelar, for the ruling party's presidential nomination.
Political analysts say Lugo's chances of clinching the presidency have been complicated after another popular candidate recently jumped in the race, dividing the opposition and improving the Colorado Party's prospects.
"Lugo is unlikely to be the central figure on the political scene in April 2008. He will be just one more opposition candidate," Caceres said.