VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The election of ordained bishop Fernando Lugo as the next president of Paraguay poses a dilemma for the Roman Catholic Church.
The Vatican strongly opposes clergy assuming political office, but it is not clear whether it would be prepared to effectively defrock a man hailed by supporters as the "bishop of the poor".
Lugo abandoned his role as a Catholic bishop three years ago saying he felt powerless to help Paraguay's poor. He asked the Vatican to accept his resignation.
The Vatican responded last year by suspending him from his priestly duties, like saying Mass. But it argued he remains a bishop because his ordination was a lifelong sacrament.
Now faced with the prospect of a bishop in the presidency upon inauguration in August, the Vatican says Lugo's unique case is under review.
"The personal situation of Monsignor (Fernando) Lugo will be examined, calmly," Father Federico Lombardi, chief Vatican spokesman, told one Italian newspaper this week.
The head of Paraguay's bishops' conference said the decision may ultimately fall to Pope Benedict.
"The relations between the Church and nations depend directly on the Holy Father and he will be the one to make the decisions in this respect," Ignacio Gogorza, head of the bishops' conference, was quoted as saying by ANSA news agency.
Under Benedict's predecessor, the late Pope John Paul II, the Vatican vocally opposed priests pursuing political office.
Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, left the priesthood in 1994 under pressure from the Vatican and later married.
Rev. Robert Drinan, the first Roman Catholic priest elected to the U.S. Congress, decided against running for reelection after being told in 1980 to decide between politics and the priesthood.
In the case of Lugo, the Vatican's existing "a divinis" suspension -- which leaves him as a bishop, but one not in good standing with the Vatican -- may be all that is necessary or prudent, said Rev. Tom Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington.
"They don't want to alienate the people of Paraguay who voted for him and turn it into a big Church-state crisis, so the best strategy on their part may be to simply ignore him," Reese said.
The Vatican has said that Lugo's election would not alter the Holy See's diplomatic relations with Paraguay. Neither would it prompt his excommunication.
Lugo's future religious aspirations are unclear. Media in Paraguay have even reported that Lugo expressed an interest in serving as bishop again once his presidential term ends in 2013.
"For that to happen, he'd have to pass through a period of penitence and reflection, if the Church were to accept that," Gogorza told a radio program in Paraguay.
Additional reporting by Hilary Burke in Asuncion; editing by Keith Weir