MODESTO -- Father Joseph Illo, pastor of St. Joseph's Catholic Church, has told parishioners in a homily and in a follow-up letter that if they voted for Barack Obama, they should consider going to confession because of the president-elect's pro-choice position.
"If you are one of the 54% of Catholics who voted for a pro-abortion candidate, you were clear on his position and you knew the gravity of the question, I urge you to go to confession before receiving communion. Don't risk losing your state of grace by receiving sacrilegiously," Illo 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.
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 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 said in an interview, "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 were 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.National exit polling after the Nov. 4 election shows a majority of Catholic voters rejected the hard-line position -- 54% of them voted for Obama and 45% for John McCain, the Republican nominee.