Ex-Medford priest's advice draws reaction

A former Medford priest has received mixed reactions from local Roman Catholics over his recent exhortation to parishioners to seek forgiveness from Jesus Christ for voting for President-elect Barack Obama.

The Rev. John Cihak, who was at Sacred Heart in Medford for four months in 2007 but now is at the Sacred Heart-St. Louis Parish in Gervais, has echoed recent statements by a South Carolina priest that a vote for Obama amounts to a vote for abortion.

Cihak, 38, made the statements after the election in a church bulletin directed to his own parishioners that also has been read by some local Catholics.

Cihak stated, "If you are one who cast your vote for our new president, I urge you to seek the mercy of Jesus through the sacrament of confession that you may be absolved from the great evil this president says he will do."

Cihak states that the "culture of death" has been given much power in this country through the election of a president he says could abolish any restrictions on abortion.

Obama said during his campaign he is pro-choice but vowed to work to reduce the number of abortions in America.

Local Catholics said there is no unanimity over the political implications of abortion among church members, and they expressed a variety of opinions on Cihak's Nov. 9 letter to his parishioners, some endorsing it and some condemning it.

"I don't think that it is appropriate," said Al Zon, a lifelong Catholic who lives in Medford. "I don't think the church should say we are sinning if we voted for Obama."

Cihak, who was also at St. Anne Catholic Church in Grants Pass for two years, said in a phone interview Thursday he wanted to clarify the sentence urging Catholics to seek forgiveness because he has received the most comments about it.

"I never stated a vote for Obama was a formal or material cooperation with evil," he said. Also, a vote for Obama is not a mortal sin, he said.

"I didn't say anything about people refraining from Holy Communion," he said.

Cihak said the letter was written after the election, so it wasn't an attempt to influence how people vote. He said he considers the letter nonpartisan because he would have condemned any candidate who supported abortion, no matter what party he or she belonged to.

He said his views are shaped by both the teachings of the church and by the many parishioners who have come to him seeking post-abortion counseling.

"There is not only a child lost, but it has devastating effects on the mother, and the father, too," he said.

He said abortion is "intrinsically evil" and as a priest he said he feels obligated to speak to his parishioners on the subject. He said the number of abortions in this country is alarming.

Studies differ on the number of abortions performed daily in the United States. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found about 2,300 abortions performed daily in 2004, while the Guttmacher Institute in New York, a health organization, found about 3,300 daily in 2005. Worldwide, the Guttmacher Institute found one in five pregnancies end in abortion.

Zon said he was surprised that Cihak had written the letter to his parishioners.

"He didn't come across to be that sort of a priest," Zon said. "I was quite disturbed about him making that remark."

Zon, who voted for Obama, personally doesn't approve of abortions, but he also feels it's a woman's right to choose what she wants to do with her body.

He said the church should do more to encourage women to find ways to avoid abortions.

Susan Erno, an Eagle Point Catholic, said she is in agreement with Cihak's position on abortion.

"We firmly believe all the issues start with life," said the 39-year-old mother. "All the other issues don't mean a hill of beans."

Erno said many Catholics have complained about the war or torture, but the thousands of abortions every day are a far graver problem, she said.

Erno thinks many Catholics weren't well informed and didn't realize Obama's stance on abortion.

Cihak's urging parishioners to seek confession is a position that might be shared by other Catholics, said Erno.

Despite her conviction, Erno said it is difficult for many Catholics to balance all the different points of view of the church when they form a decision before casting their vote.

"It would be nice if God himself would come down to tell us what to do," she said.

The Rev. Sean Weeks, of Our Lady of the Mountain Catholic Church in Ashland, said Cihak's letter was "pretty strong," particularly the sentence urging people to seek confession for voting for Obama.

He said as a priest he views his purpose as a spiritual guide to parishioners on issues the church opposes such as abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia and unjust wars.

"I try to stay away from telling people how to vote," he said.

People should vote their conscience by following the moral teachings of the church, he said.

Weeks referred to a lengthy paper titled "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" written by Catholic bishops in November 2007 that informs priests not to tell parishioners how to vote. But Catholics, the letter states, cannot vote for a candidate who supports abortion or racism.

Based on these teachings, Weeks said it can be difficult for the average Catholic to determine which candidate to vote for.

In October, on a "respect for life" Sunday, he gave a sermon explaining the church's position, which is basically to protect life from conception to death. The sermon was based on the bishops' paper. One parishioner approached him afterward and said he would have a difficult time voting for either Obama or John McCain based on what Weeks had just said.

Weeks said it is difficult for Catholics to weigh all the different issues before making a decision on who to vote for.

"The church sets the bar very high," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.

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