By Sue Nowicki
last updated: November 29, 2008 02:20:20 AM
St. Joseph's Catholic Church Father Joseph Illo at his church in Modesto Thursday Oct. 05, 2006. Marty Bicek/The Modesto Bee - Modesto Bee - Marty Bicek
Parishioners of St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Modesto have been told they should consider going to confession if they voted for Barack Obama, because of the president-elect's position condoning abortion.
"If you are one of the 54 percent of Catholics who voted for a pro-abortion candidate, you were clear on his position and you knew the grav- ity of the question, I urge you to go to confession before receiving communion. Don't risk losing your state of grace by receiving sacrilegiously," the Rev. Joseph Illo, pastor of St. Joseph's, wrote in a letter dated Nov. 21.
The letter was sent to more than 15,000 members of the St. Joseph's parish. It is one of 34 parishes in the Stockton Diocese, which has more than 200,000 members in Stanislaus, San Joaquin and four other counties.
Illo also delivered this message in a homily.
Though Obama's support of abortion rights angered many Catholics nationally during the campaign, Illo's letter is believed to be the first in Central California from a priest to his parishioners on the topic.
The Most Rev. Stephen Blaire, bishop of the Stockton Diocese, disagrees with Illo. He said Catholics should not feel compelled to disclose how they voted to their priest.
Blaire said Catholics who carefully weighed many issues and settled on a candidate, such as Obama, who was supportive of abortion rights, were not in need of confession. He said confession would be necessary "only if someone voted for a pro-abortion or pro-choice candidate -- if that's the reason you voted for them."
"Our position on pro-life is very important, but there are other issues," Blaire said. "No one candidate reflects everything that we stand for. I'm sure that most Catholics who voted were voting on economic issues.
"There were probably many priests, and I suspect many bishops, who voted for Obama."
Illo's letter states, "Many Catholics voted for such pro-abortion candidates thinking that their good positions on other issues, such as the war or health care, outweighed their deplorable stand on abortion."
Illo also wrote that Obama "promised Planned Parenthood that the first thing he would do upon taking office is to sign the so-called 'Freedom of Choice Act,' which would grant unlimited access to abortion in all 50 states up until the moment of live birth."
Illo, in an interview Wednesday, explained his reasoning.
"In Catholic teaching, you have to go to confession when you have committed a mortal sin," he said. "Now, what is a mortal sin? It's somewhat complex. No one can say, 'You committed a mortal sin.' I can only say, 'It's a grave matter.' It's my job to look after my parishioners.
"I've gotten a lot of e-mails and phone calls. It's about 12-to-1 in favor of what I said. One person has left the parish. But I got all of these other positive things."
Across the country, Obama's nomination and campaign was divisive for many Catholics. Many priests and church officials sermonized against him because of his stance on abortion, as they did four years ago when Democratic John Kerry challenged President Bush. There were Catholic-inspired anti-Obama videos on YouTube regarding the issue.
In a story published in October in the Chicago Tribune, Joe Scheidler, president of the Pro-Life Action League, said it was hypocritical for any Catholic to vote for Obama -- even if they agreed with his positions on other health care topics.
"There are a lot of ways you can solve poverty and all these other issues," Scheidler said. "But abortion is the taking of a human life, and the church is very strict on that. Any involvement in abortion is not just a sin, it's an excommunicable sin. This is serious business."
But some loyal to the church disagreed. Patrick Whelan is one of the founders of Catholic Democrats, which supported Obama and other Democratic candidates in the election.
"I feel that every Catholic can vote for Obama in good conscience," Whelan told the Tribune. "I think Barack Obama is the first Democratic presidential candidate who has come out and said he plans constructive measures to reduce the number of abortions in the United States."
National exit polling after the Nov. 4 election shows most Catholic voters rejected the hard-line position as 54 percent of them voted for Obama and 45 percent for John McCain, the Republican nominee.
A week after the election, a number of high-profile Catholic bishops meeting in Baltimore signaled they intend to work with the president-elect on issues such as immigration and health, but remain strongly opposed to his position on abortion.
During the meeting, The Boston Globe reported, the bishops for the first time approved a new "blessing of a child in the womb," which could be said by priests for pregnant women.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville called the blessing "a very tangible way of us to witness, pastorally and sacramentally, the life of the unborn child."
Bishop Arthur Serratelli, of Paterson, N.J., said, "It is important to reaffirm and focus our attention on the life of the unborn."
American Cardinal Frank Stafford, formerly archbishop of Denver and now assigned to the Vatican, called Obama's election "apocalyptic" during a speech Nov. 14 at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "On Nov. 4, 2008," he added, "America suffered a cultural earthquake."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2012.