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House’s health care bill has both laudable and troubling aspects, bishop says

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WASHINGTON — The inclusion of “critical life protections” in the House health care bill is laudable, but other provisions, including those related to Medicaid and tax credits, are “troubling” and “must be addressed” before the measure is passed, said the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ domestic policy committee.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, who is chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, sent a letter March 17 to House members. It was released March 20 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Congressman Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, takes notes as he listens to House Budget Committee lawmakers deliver statements on the American Health Care Act during a March 16 hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (CNS photo/Shawn Thew, EPA)

Congressman Jim Renacci, R-Ohio, takes notes as he listens to House Budget Committee lawmakers deliver statements on the American Health Care Act during a March 16 hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (CNS photo/Shawn Thew, EPA)

Regarding life protections in the bill, Bishop Dewane said: “By restricting funding which flows to providers that promote abortion and prohibiting federal funding for abortion or the purchase of plans that provide abortion, including with current and future tax credits, the legislation honors a key moral requirement for our nation’s health care policy.”

Among the “very troubling features” of the bill are the Medicaid-related provisions, he said. Other aspects that must be addressed before the bill is passed include the absence of “any changes” from the current law regarding conscience protections against mandates to provide certain coverage or services, Bishop Dewane said.

His letter follows one sent March 8 to House members by him and three other bishops’ committee chairmen stating they would be reviewing closely the American Health Care Act, introduced in the House March 6 to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

The other signers of the earlier letter were: Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman, Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman, Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty; and Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, chairman, Committee on Migration.

In his March 17 letter, Bishop Dewane said one area in the new bill that could be helpful, with “appropriate safeguards,” is an effort to increase flexibility for states and provide more options for health care savings and different kinds of coverage based on economic levels. But still, Bishop Dewane said, “efforts to increase flexibility must be carefully undertaken so as not to undermine” a given program’s “effectiveness or reach.”

In the House bill, Medicaid expansion would be repealed and replaced with a “per capita allotment.” Under the current law, more Americans became eligible for Medicaid, so long as their states opted into the entitlement program’s expansion.

The House bill’s “proposed modifications to the Medicaid program, a vital component of the social safety net, will have sweeping impacts, increasing economic and community costs while moving away from affordable access for all,” Bishop Dewane said.

He also cited the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s assessment of the bill that said “as many as 24 million additional people could be uninsured in the next 10 years for a variety of reasons.”

The U.S. bishops, he said, have stressed that “all people and every family must be able to see clearly how they will fit within and access the health care system in a way that truly meets their needs.”

The CBO estimates millions of people currently eligible for Medicaid under the law “will be negatively impacted due to reduced funding from the per capita cap” proposal, Bishop Dewane said.

“State and local resources are unlikely to be sufficient to cover the gaps,” he continued.

Congress needs “to rework the Medicaid-related provisions of the AHCA to fix these problems and ensure access for all, and especially for those most in need,” said Bishop Dewane.

He also pointed out that the House measure does not provide “conscience protection against mandates to provide coverage or services, such as the regulatory interpretation of ‘preventive services’ requiring contraception and sterilization coverage in almost all private health plans nationwide.”

The mandate requiring most employers to provide such coverage even if they are morally opposed to it, he reminded House members, “has been the subject of large-scale litigation especially involving religious entities like the Little Sisters of the Poor.”

Bishop Dewane outlined other provisions he said need to be addressed before the legislation is passed, including:

  • The new tax credit system, which “appears to create increased barriers to affordability, particularly for older and lower-income people when compared with the cost assistance” allowed under the current health care law.
  • The cap on the cost of plans for older Americans relative to plans for younger people would increase to a 5-to-1 ratio over the current 3-to-1 ratio. Studies show, Bishop Dewane said, that “premiums for older people on fixed incomes would rise, at times dramatically” under the House proposal.
  • A 30 percent surcharge for a 12-month period for those who do not maintain continuous coverage “presents a serious challenge.”
  • No longer any requirement for states to allow individuals seeking Medicaid benefits a reasonable opportunity to verify that they are either U.S. citizens or have a qualified immigration status. “This change would undoubtedly threaten eligible individuals’ access to essential and early medical care,” the bishop said.

The current federal health care law “is, by no means, a perfect law,” Bishop Dewane said, noting the U.S. bishops “registered serious objections at the time of its passage” in 2010.

“However, in attempting to improve the deficiencies of the ACA, health care policy ought not create other unacceptable problems, particularly for those who struggle on the margins of our society,” he said.

The U.S. bishops “look forward to working with Congress to address the problems found in the AHCA, to ensure that all people can benefit from comprehensive, quality health care that they can truly afford.”

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Trump visits Catholic school in Florida to show support for school choice

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ORLANDO, Fla. — President Donald Trump visited St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando March 3 to show his support for school choice.

The president was joined by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott in a tour of the school that started with a visit to a fourth-grade class.

U.S. President Donald Trump chats with students from St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Fla., March 3. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also joined the president. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

U.S. President Donald Trump chats with students from St. Andrew Catholic School in Orlando, Fla., March 3. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also joined the president. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

The visit was called a listening session.

One of the tour guests was Denisha Merriweather, who attended a private high school through Florida’s voucher program, which she credits with turning her life around.

“We want millions more to have the same chance to achieve the great success that you’re achieving,” Trump said. The president also told school administrators that “the love you have for what you do is really fantastic,” The Associated Press reported.

In his address to Congress Feb. 28, Trump said that education was the “civil rights issue of our time” and urged Congress to pass legislation to fund school choice for disadvantaged young people, but he did not offer any details.

St. Andrew Catholic School, which opened in 1962, teaches 350 children from pre-K to eighth grade. On its website it says: “Our goals are simple: college and heaven.”

The school partners with the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, or ACE,  which serves under-resourced Catholic schools.

A March 3 statement from ACE said the president’s visit gave the St. Andrew’s students “a historic opportunity to share their story with the nation.”

“We are acutely aware that the current political climate is among the most polarized in American history,” the statement said. “These divisions have real implications for relationships here in the St. Andrew community.”

It also stressed that “every family has the right to choose the best school for their child” and that “because of the parental choice program in Florida, this school will continue to empower families, form faithful citizens, strengthen the Pine Hills community, and provide children with educational opportunities.”

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Bishop Parkes named bishop of St. Petersburg, Fla.

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WASHINGTON — Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida, and named as his successor Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Florida.

The changes were announced Nov. 28 in Washington by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., center, is seen during morning prayer Nov. 15 at the annual fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops  in Baltimore. Pope Francis Nov. 28 named him to succeed retiring Bishop Robert N. Lynch as head of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Bishop Gregory L. Parkes of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., center, is seen during morning prayer Nov. 15 at the annual fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore. Pope Francis Nov. 28 named him to succeed retiring Bishop Robert N. Lynch as head of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, Fla. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Bishop Lynch, who has headed the St. Petersburg Diocese since 1996, is 75, the age at which canon law requires bishops to turn in their resignation to the pope. Bishop Parkes, 52, has been the bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee since 2012.

“I’m very grateful to Pope Francis for appointing me bishop of St. Petersburg,” Bishop Parkes said in a statement. “It has been a joy to serve as bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee for the past four and a half years. I’m going to miss the panhandle and all those I’ve had the pleasure of meeting during my time here.”

He will be installed as the fifth bishop of St. Petersburg Jan. 4 at the Cathedral of St. Jude the Apostle in St. Petersburg.

Bishop Parkes told Catholics of the St. Petersburg diocese that he felt “blessed to be your new shepherd. Please pray for me that I will be a good shepherd, that I will be faithful shepherd, a holy shepherd.”

Bishop Lynch said in a statement he is “relieved and grateful to Pope Francis” for giving the diocese a new bishop who is “a shepherd like his own heart.”

On March 20, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed then-Father Parkes to be the fifth bishop of Pensacola-Tallahassee. He was installed June 5, 2012.

Born in Mineola, New York, April 2, 1964, Bishop Parkes attended Daytona Beach Community College in Florida before earning a bachelor’s degree in finance from Florida State University. He went to St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida, from 1993 to 1996, and the Pontifical North American College in Rome, from 1996 to 2000.

He earned a sacred theology degree in 1988 and a canon law degree in 2000, both from the Pontifical Gregorian University, also in Rome.

He was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, by Bishop Norbert M. Dorsey June 26, 1999. He has two brothers, Christopher Parkes and Father Stephen Parkes, who is a priest of the Diocese of Orlando.

After his priestly ordination, then-Father Parkes’ parish assignments included parochial vicar at Holy Family Catholic Church in Orlando, 2000-2004, and parochial administrator and pastor of Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Celebration, Florida, 2005-2012. He also was the Orlando diocese’s vicar general and chancellor for canonical affairs.

For six years before his episcopal ordination to head the St. Petersburg Diocese in January 1996, Bishop Lynch was general secretary of what was then the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington. Before that, he was a staff member at the bishops’ conference as both layman and priest, including a stint as associate general secretary.

Born May 27, 1941, in Charleston, West Virginia, Robert Nugent Lynch received his bachelor of arts degree from the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington, Ohio, in May 1963 and his master of divinity degree from Pope John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, in May 1978. That same month, he was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Miami.

He served as associate pastor of St. James in North Miami, then as rector and president of St. John Vianney College Seminary in Miami. As the fourth bishop of St. Petersburg, he succeeded Archbishop John C. Favalora, who had been named Miami archbishop a year earlier. Bishop Lynch chose as his motto, “Pro Amicis Suis” (“For his friends”).

Bishop Lynch continued the reorganization and management of the diocese begun under Archbishop Favalora. He commissioned the building of a new pastoral center, which was formally dedicated March 31, 2000. He also took an active role in planning for the future construction of new Catholic high schools, and improvements to the existing schools.

In one of his last blog posts as St. Petersburg’s bishop, Bishop Lynch recounted his recent trip in late October to Rome, where among other things he visited four men studying there to be priests for St. Petersburg.

“As I enter the remaining months of my leadership of the local church of St. Petersburg, I do so with the knowledge that almost all of my seminarians are not pursuing priesthood for respectability, ambition, power and influence but to be comfortable with a pastoral strategy that makes sense in a changing world and culture,” he wrote Oct. 28.

He added: “The very best things I bequeath to my successor are the future priests he will ordain for your service and that of the Lord.”

The St. Petersburg diocese covers about 3,200 square miles. It has a total population of just over 3 million, of whom just over 445,000, or 14 percent, are Catholic.

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Castro’s death spurs prayers for peace in Cuba, condolences from pope, Miami archbishop

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WASHINGTON — In a video message, Cuban President Raul Castro announced the Nov. 25 death of his 90-year-old brother and longtime Cuban leader and Communist icon whom many in Latin America know by just one name: Fidel.

“It is with great sorrow that I come before you to inform our people, friends of our America and the world, that today, November 25, 2016, at 10:29 p.m., the commander in chief of the Cuban Revolution Fidel Castro Ruz passed away,” said his brother Raul, who took over control of the island in 2006, after Fidel Castro, became too sick to govern.

Cuban President Fidel Castro gestures to Pope John Paul II during the pope's arrival ceremony at Jose Marti Airport in Havana Jan. 21, 1998. Castro, who seized power in a 1959 revolution and governed Cuba until 2006, died Nov. 25 at the age of 90. (CNS photo/Zoraida Diaz, Reuters)

Cuban President Fidel Castro gestures to Pope John Paul II during the pope’s arrival ceremony at Jose Marti Airport in Havana Jan. 21, 1998. Castro, who seized power in a 1959 revolution and governed Cuba until 2006, died Nov. 25 at the age of 90. (CNS photo/Zoraida Diaz, Reuters)

Until that year, Fidel Castro had ruled Cuba in some form since 1959, the year he led a revolution that toppled the government of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Over the years, he survived attempts to be toppled by others, including the United States. He gained fame throughout Latin America, where many saw him as a David-against-Goliath figure each time he denounced the commercial, “imperialist” interests of the U.S. as attempts to rob the region of its riches.

But for others Castro was a menace and a dictator, particularly those whose properties were seized when his regime nationalized homes and businesses on the island nation without compensation. Over the decades, he was accused him of a range of wrongdoings, from unjust imprisonment to executions to religious persecution. Others lauded him and pointed to Cuba as a model for other Latin American countries to emulate in the areas of education, medicine, and gender and racial equality. Many also blamed the U.S. embargo against Cuba, not Castro’s governance, for the island’s financial woes.

Recognizing the complexity of the different feelings the Cuban leader evoked in life, and now in death, Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, where many Cuban exiles live, released a brief statement Nov. 26.

“His death provokes many emotions, both in and outside the island. Nevertheless, beyond all possible emotions, the passing of this figure should lead us to invoke the patroness of Cuba, the Virgin of Charity, asking for peace for Cuba and its people,” Archbishop Wenski said.

He repeated the words later that day during a Mass “for peace in Cuba” at the Ermita de la Caridad in Miami, a shrine devoted to the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, the patron saint of Cuba, and a place, he said, built by the sacrifices of Cubans in exile.

“On the eve of this first Sunday of Advent … we have learned that Fidel Castro has died,” Archbishop Wenski said during the homily. “Each human being, each one of us, will die and we will all be judged one day. And now it’s his turn.”

U.S. President Barack Obama, whose administration restored diplomatic relations with the island in 2015, expressed “a hand of friendship to the Cuban people” in a statement but also recognized the range of feelings surrounding the leader’s death.

“We know that this moment fills Cubans, in Cuba and in the United States, with powerful emotions, recalling the countless ways in which Fidel Castro altered the course of individual lives, families and of the Cuban nation. History will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him,” he said.

In an interview with Spanish radio COPE, the president of the Cuban bishops’ conference, Archbishop Dionisio Garcia Ibanez of Santiago, said that each time there’s a change of government,  there’s a change for a country, but in this case, there hasn’t been a change in the presidency.

“The figure of Fidel has been so significant, so influential, that it will always have an impact on society,” he said.

In a telegram in Spanish, Pope Francis extended his condolences to Raul Castro on the “sad news” of “the death of your dear brother.” The pope, credited with the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, also expressed condolences to the government and to the Cuban people, and said he was offering prayers.

Though Raul Castro has publicly expressed admiration for Pope Francis, the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Cuban government can be described as a work in progress.

Catholics, like other religious groups in the country, witnessed the seizing of church properties, including schools, churches and other centers used for religious gatherings, following the 1959 revolution. Some locales were closed; others were put to nonreligious uses.

Priests and religious suspected of being against the revolution were jailed or expelled and practice of the Catholic faith dwindled on the island, particularly when the nation, under Soviet influence, was for a period an officially atheist country.

In recent years, however, the government allowed physical reconstruction of church buildings and some properties were returned to the care of the church.

In 2015, the government granted permission for the construction of a new Catholic church on the island, something it hadn’t allowed in more than five decades.

In 1998, then Pope John Paul II paid a visit to the island that many credit with loosening religious limitations in Cuba. Since then, each pope who has visited the island also met with Fidel Castro, even after he ceded power.

Fidel Castro was last seen in public Nov. 16 when he met with the president of Vietnam. In the video announcing his death, his brother said Fidel Castro’s body was to be cremated, as he had wished.

Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist party, announced nine days of national mourning from Nov. 26 until Dec. 4. His ashes, the newspaper said in an online article, will travel through some parts of Cuba, and mourners are expected to pay their respects during rallies that have been organized in his honor. His ashes will ultimately be interred at St. Ifigenia Cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, where Cuban national leader and Latin American icon Jose Marti is buried.

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Catholic Charities agencies begin helping Hurricane Matthew victims

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Catholic News Service

Catholic Charities agencies joined emergency response efforts in coastal communities in four Southeastern states as residents and parish staffers began returning to assess the damage Hurricane Matthew left behind.

Civilian rescuers Jeremy Blue and his father, Tommy Blue, ferry a family to safety from their flooded apartment Oct. 9 in Lumberton, N.C., after Hurricane Matthew. The powerful storm killed at least 1,000 people in Haiti and at least 33 in the U.S. (CNS photo/Jonathan Drake, Reuters)

Civilian rescuers Jeremy Blue and his father, Tommy Blue, ferry a family to safety from their flooded apartment Oct. 9 in Lumberton, N.C., after Hurricane Matthew. The powerful storm killed at least 1,000 people in Haiti and at least 33 in the U.S. (CNS photo/Jonathan Drake, Reuters)

Some evacuation orders remained in effect in South Carolina, where the storm came ashore Oct. 7, dumping up to 18 inches of rain in communities near Charleston. High water blocked some roads, preventing people from returning to their homes in South Carolina and North Carolina and others were prevented from leaving their homes as they awaited the delivery of food and water.

In Florida, churches sustained serious damage and the historic Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine in St. Augustine experienced flooding, preventing Mass from being celebrated indoors the weekend of Oct. 8-9.

One Catholic Charities official in North Carolina said that in discussions with some residents he learned that the damage and flooding caused by Matthew exceeded that of the powerful Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

Attempts to reach the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, were unsuccessful because telephone and electrical lines were down.

Some South Carolina communities in in Horry, Georgetown and Williamsburg counties faced the possibility of flooding, even though the storm’s initial fury bypassed them. Kelly Kaminski, a regional coordinator for Catholic Charities of Charleston, said Oct. 10 that authorities were keeping an eye on rivers that continued to rise from runoff from Matthew’s torrential rains.

Many of the same people affected by the storm or worried about potential flooding continue to recover from the historical floods that swamped the state a year ago, she said.

“We’re working with over 2,000 clients just on the flood stuff. Now in addition we have to handle everything from Hurricane Matthew,” Kaminski told Catholic News Service.

Kaminski had no word on damage to churches and schools because evacuation orders in some communities remained in effect.

New flooding also was a concern in North Carolina, said Daniel Altenau, director of communication and disaster services for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Raleigh.

“The major concern right now is that rivers are increasingly rising. The flooding is not expected to peak in some areas until Friday (Oct. 14) and may not begin to subside until the 15th,” he said.

Catholic Charities planned to begin distributing food cards to families by Oct. 11 as people either returned home or could be reached by some of the 55 to 60 agency staff members working in the affected communities, Altenau said.

“Many of our own staff has been affected, which has limited the ability to be in the community,” he said.

Up and down the North Carolina coast, churches and schools sustained damaged. Altenau said he had reports from “at least a dozen parishes” reporting damage. “The major problem is roofing issues,” he said. “But because of power being out, we aren’t able to communicate with them. We expect more reports in the coming days as well.”

Hurricane Matthew’’s worst punch missed much of the Florida coast. The most serious damage occurred in the Diocese of St. Augustine, where church properties were seriously damaged or flooded and homes were destroyed.

Kathleen Bagg, director of communications for the diocese, said downed trees littered the property of the Mission Nombre de Dios and the Shrine of Our Lady of Le Leche. A tree fell onto the roof of the Our Lady of Le Leche Chapel, she said, but did not cause damage to the interior of the structure.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, which was renovated in time for the 450th anniversary of the city and cathedral parish, sustained enough flooding to render it unusable for Masses Oct. 8 and 9, Bagg said. Mass was celebrated in the west courtyard outside the church, she said.

Another church, St. Anastasia on a barrier island across from the center of St. Augustine, is believed to have sustained serious damaged in the storm. Authorities were not allowing residents, many of whom belong to the parish, to return to St. Anastasia Island Oct. 10.

Bagg said that power remained out for much of the region, making it difficult to contact other parishes to determine how they fared.

In Miami, parishioners at Notre Dame d’Haiti Parish began collecting donations of food for the Caribbean nation, which took a direct hit from Hurricane Matthew. Parishioners prayed Oct. 7 for the estimated 300,000 Haitians affected by the storm.

The number of deaths reached 1,000 on Oct. 9, five days after the storm’s 145-mile-an-hour winds and torrential rains slammed into the country, according to a tally by Reuters based on conversations with local officials.

However, Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency reported that 336 people had died. The agency’s accounting of casualties is lower because of a policy that requires emergency workers visit each village to confirm the number of deaths and injuries.

In the U.S., the death toll stood at 33 as of Oct. 11.

 

Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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Miami archdiocese prepares to help hurricane Matthew victims

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Catholic News Service

MIAMI — Like the rest of South Florida, the Archdiocese of Miami was carefully watching the path of Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 storm that began pounding Haiti and Cuba Oct. 4 and was expected to hit Florida’s Atlantic coastal area late Oct. 6.

Residents stand outside their homes Oct. 5 in Cite Soleil, a slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after Hurricane Matthew swept through the island nation. Rescue workers in Haiti are struggling to reach parts of the country cut off by Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful Caribbean storm in nearly a decade. (CNS photo/courtesy Malteser International)

Residents stand outside their homes Oct. 5 in Cite Soleil, a slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, after Hurricane Matthew swept through the island nation. Rescue workers in Haiti are struggling to reach parts of the country cut off by Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful Caribbean storm in nearly a decade. (CNS photo/courtesy Malteser International)

Chief among the preparations was prayer. Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski asked all South Florida parishes to include prayers for those affected in their daily Masses in the days ahead.

About 1.5 million Floridians were already fleeing the coast to take shelter elsewhere.

The archdiocese also was preparing to provide aid to the Caribbean nations hardest hit by Matthew, especially Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica and the Bahamas.

According to Deacon Richard Turcotte, chief executive officer of Catholic Charities, the archdiocese established contact with Catholic Relief Services’ Caribbean representative, who is stationed in Honduras and has responsibility for Cuba, Jamaica and Haiti.

“CRS has prepositioned supplies in the Dominican Republic (tarps, hygiene and cooking kits) that can be moved to Cuba or Jamaica if needed,” Deacon Turcotte told the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Miami archdiocese.

Although the island avoided a direct hit, Jamaica experienced serious flooding caused by Matthew’s outer bands. Haiti, meanwhile, felt the full impact of the storm.

It left southwestern Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, in shambles after slamming into the country’s Caribbean coast Oct. 4. The cities of Les Cayes, on the southwest coast, and Jeremie, in the northwest, were said to be particularly hit hard by the strongest storm to strike the Caribbean region in a decade.

Haitian officials said at midday Oct. 6 that at least 108 people had been killed, and more casualties were expected.

In Miami, Father Reginald Jean-Mary, pastor of Notre Dame d’Haiti Mission in Little Haiti, has been in touch with Haiti’s Cardinal Chibly Langlois, who heads the Diocese of Les Cayes.

After striking Haiti and Cuba, the slow-moving storm continued on a northward path to batter the Bahamas. From there it was headed to the Florida coast.

“We have spoken with Archbishop (Patrick) Pinder of Nassau and representatives from the Archdiocese of Kingston, indicating to each that we are on standby to assist with post-storm recovery,” Deacon Turcotte added.

He said Catholic Charities also had communicated with a food supply wholesaler who could have rice, beans and cooking oils put on pallets and be ready to deliver to a freight forwarder by Oct. 7 or 8 to go to the islands.

Regarding Haiti, the immediate need is for cash donations to purchase water and nonperishable food items, as well as to aid in the cleanup.

All Miami archdiocesan aid would be funneled through church organizations such as Caritas Cuba; CRS, the U.S. bishops’ overseas relief and development agency; and Amor en Accion, a lay missionary group that works with Miami’s sister Diocese of Port-de-Paix in Haiti’s northwest region — the poorest in that nation.

Teresita Gonzalez, executive director of Amor en Accion, noted that because the Catholic Church is already present in every one of the affected nations, its agencies offer the best and most effective way of providing relief.

That is especially true in northwestern Haiti, where “there are no NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), only the church,” Gonzalez said.

As Matthew moved closer to South Florida, the archdiocesan Office of Building and Property also reminded pastors and those in charge of parish plants to review their hurricane preparedness plans.

Archdiocesan schools planned to follow the lead of public schools in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties on school closures.

The archdiocese also will notify local radio and television stations regarding school closings or relief efforts.

Rodriguez-Soto is editor of the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.

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New Zika infection fears spark renewed debate on abortion, birth control

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Catholic News Service

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — With a growing number of U.S. travelers returning from abroad with the Zika virus and with several cases of Zika-related microcephaly and birth defects reported in the U.S., the disease has inflamed the abortion debate domestically.

A view through a microscope shows larvae of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the virus Zika, at a laboratory at the National Institute of Health in Bogota, Colombia, April 26. In February, the National Catholic Bioethics Center issued a statement saying that concerns about Zika does not justify abortion or allowing artificial birth control even with the suspected connection between Zika causing birth defects in an unborn child. (CNS photo/Leonardo Munoz, EPA)

A view through a microscope shows larvae of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which transmits the virus Zika, at a laboratory at the National Institute of Health in Bogota, Colombia, April 26. In February, the National Catholic Bioethics Center issued a statement saying that concerns about Zika does not justify abortion or allowing artificial birth control even with the suspected connection between Zika causing birth defects in an unborn child. (CNS photo/Leonardo Munoz, EPA)

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. a Republican from Miami, where the Zika virus has now started spreading in one neighborhood through mosquito transmission, said he does not believe the Zika virus should be a pretext for an infected pregnant woman to get an abortion.

Rubio met in Miami Aug. 4 with Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention {CDCP), and Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott. The senator also was making a renewed push to call the U.S. Congress back into session to approve funding for combating Zika domestically and to introduce legislation that would provide U.S. troops serving in high-risk areas with additional protections from Zika.

He also reportedly told the news magazine Politico Aug. 8: “Obviously, microcephaly is a terrible prenatal condition that kids are born with. And when they are, it’s a lifetime of difficulties,” he said. “So I get it. I’m not pretending to you that that’s an easy question you asked me. But I’m pro-life. And I’m strongly pro-life. I believe all human life should be protected by our law, irrespective of the circumstances or condition of that life.”

[It was reported on Aug. 19 that the CDCP announced that “pregnant women and their sexual partners who are concerned about potential Zika virus exposure may also consider postponing nonessential travel to all parts of Miami-Dade County” in Florida.]

Earlier this year, Rubio co-sponsored President Barack Obama’s Zika-fighting legislation, which failed to pass into law in part because of partisan divisions over the bill’s inclusion of components of birth control services from Planned Parenthood.

New York and California officials have indicated cases of babies in those states born with Zika-related microcephaly, and at least 15 babies nationally have been born with Zika-related birth defects as of late July, according to the CDC.

In February, the National Catholic Bioethics Center issued a statement that Zika does not justify abortion or artificial birth control even with the suspected connection between the Zika virus and birth defects.

Zika is the most recent and high-profile instance of any number of diseases that might have deleterious effects on the unborn children whose mothers contract it while pregnant, the statement noted.

“In no way, however, would it justify a change in the Catholic Church’s consistent teachings on the sacredness and inviolability of human life and the dignity and beauty of the means of transmitting life through marital relations. Direct abortion and contraceptive acts are intrinsically immoral and contrary to these great goods, and no circumstances can justify either.”

In February, U.N. officials said pregnant women infected with the Zika virus should be allowed easier access to abortion and birth control and criticized countries whose governments urged women told hold off getting pregnant as Zika cases have increased.

In New York, Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, issued a statement on the Zika-abortion debate last April following the CDC’s finding that the Zika virus can cause some babies to be born with microcephaly.

“Naturally the Zika virus is a cause for concern, and we call upon governments and medical professionals to continue to develop appropriate treatments and interventions,” Father Pavone said. “But in no way does this justify recourse to abortion. The child in the womb is a patient too, and killing one’s patient is never an appropriate response.”

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Philippine bishops call on Catholics not to bully, harass gay community

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MANILA, Philippines — Philippine Catholic bishops called for vigilance against bullying, ostracism and harassment of gay people in the wake of the mass shooting in Orlando, Florida.

People gather at a June 14 candlelight vigil in Manila, Philippines, in memory of the victims of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Philippine Catholic bishops called for vigilance against bullying, ostracism and harassment of gay people in the wake of the incident in which police said a lone gunman killed 49 people early June 12 at the club. (CNS photo/Mark R. Cristino, EPA)

People gather at a June 14 candlelight vigil in Manila, Philippines, in memory of the victims of the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Philippine Catholic bishops called for vigilance against bullying, ostracism and harassment of gay people in the wake of the incident in which police said a lone gunman killed 49 people early June 12 at the club. (CNS photo/Mark R. Cristino, EPA)

“No matter that we may disapprove of the actions, decisions and choices of others, there is absolutely no reason to reject the person, no justification for cruelty, no reason for making outcasts of them,” the country’s Catholic bishops said in a statement.

The bishops described the incident in which a gunman entered a nightclub, began shooting patrons and held some at gunpoint for several hours as a “hate crime” that was perpetrated against persons for their sexual orientation, ucanews.com reported.

The church leaders said the Philippines must address discrimination, explaining that many Filipinos are forced to the peripheries of the human community because the norms of “decent society” forbid association with people of different sexual preferences.

At least 50 people (including the gunman) were killed, and more than 50 others were injured in the June 12 incident.

“We must continue the dialogue and the conversation with (the gay community) over the things about which we disagree,” read the statement signed by Archbishop Socrates Villegas of Lingayen-Dagupan, president of the bishops’ conference.

“This dialogue must always be an encounter of brothers and sisters, an encounter of friends in the Lord,” the bishops added.

They said the shooting “challenges us to ask ourselves how we can all, not Americans alone, become a better people after having recovered from our grief.”

In his statement, Archbishop Villegas said it is regrettable that the tragedy occurred in the midst of the observance of the Catholic Church’s Jubilee Year of Mercy.

“This grim event merely underscores how right Pope Francis was in convoking this year as a year of mercy,” he said.

“The heartlessness with which so many were cut down in their youth or in the prime of life only makes clear how much the world needs mercy,” Archbishop Villegas added.

The Filipino bishops also expressed their condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in the tragedy.

“We can and should never reconcile ourselves with violence in society, whether this be the violence of lawless elements, the violence of the self-righteous, the violence of vigilante groups or the violence of government,” the bishops said.

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Florida bishop mourns death of priest found dead, believed murdered

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ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — The bishop of St. Augustine mourned the death of Father Rene Robert, a priest of the diocese who was found dead in Georgia and was believed murdered.

“While his life was taken from us tragically on Sunday, April 10, the day of his disappearance. It is important that we remember how he lived his life in selfless love for others,” Bishop Felipe J. Estevez of St. Augustine said in an April 19 statement.

Father Rene Robert, a priest of the Diocese of  St. Augustine, Fla.,  was found dead April 18 in Burke County, Ga., after being reported missing April 12 when he did not show up for a church function. (CNS/Scott Smith, courtesy Diocese of St. Augustine)

Father Rene Robert, a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine, Fla., was found dead April 18 in Burke County, Ga., after being reported missing April 12 when he did not show up for a church function. (CNS/Scott Smith, courtesy Diocese of St. Augustine)

Father Robert, who was ordained in 1989 but was retired from active ministry, was first reported missing April 12 after he missed a church function. His body was found April 18 in Burke County, Georgia, about 260 miles away from St. Johns County, Florida, south of Jacksonville, where he had lived.

“Father Rene was a humble and generous servant of our Lord and he shared his many gifts with the poor, the deaf community and with individuals whose lives have found themselves in jail or imprisoned. He put his faith into action through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy,” Bishop Estevez said.

Police, using bloodhounds, apprehended Steven James Murray, 28, in a wooded area of Aiken, South Carolina, about 46 miles from where Father Robert’s body was found, on April 14, one day after he was identified as a person of interest in the case. Father Robert’s car was also found near Aiken.

Police said Murray led them to several sites, including the one where Father Robert’s body was found.

Sheriff David Shoar of St. Johns County, Florida, said Murray was to be charged with first-degree murder in Georgia.

“To those whom he ministered, Father Rene will be remembered for his kindness and endless love for them. He always saw the good in the people he served reminding them that God created them for greatness with a good and noble purpose for others,” Bishop Estevez said.

Among those he ministered to was Shoar, a Catholic, who said he and his wife knew Father Robert personally. “Laura and I have known Father Rene since he arrived here,” Shoar wrote on Facebook, adding he was a “wonderful servant.” The priest had performed baptisms and marriage ceremonies for members of Shoar’s family.

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Supreme Court rules Florida’s death penalty system unconstitutional

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court Jan. 12 said the state of Florida’s death penalty system is unconstitutional because it allows judges, rather than juries, to determine whether a convicted criminal should get a death sentence.

The U.S. flag flies in front of the Supreme Court in Washington in this file photo from May 18, 2015. (CNS/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

The U.S. flag flies in front of the Supreme Court in Washington in this file photo from May 18, 2015. (CNS/Joshua Roberts, Reuters)

Michael B. Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops in Tallahassee, said the conference was “pleased this decision was issued so promptly” on what was the first day of Florida’s 2016 legislative session.

“This should compel the Legislature to address the issue immediately,” he said in a statement emailed to Catholic News Service.

Ruling 8-1 in Hurst v. Florida, the high court said that the state’s “capital sentencing scheme” violates the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the amendment, which guarantees the rights of criminal defendants, “requires a jury, not a judge, to find each fact necessary to impose a sentence of death.”

The case is named for Timothy Lee Hurst, convicted of the 1998 murder of his manager at a Pensacola, Florida, fast-food restaurant. In Florida, the jury plays an advisory role, deciding if the defendant is eligible for the death penalty, then a judge determines whether that sentence should be imposed.

In Hurst’s case, a jury in 2000 decided 7-5 in favor of putting him to death. He was granted a new sentencing hearing on appeal, and the jury again recommended a death sentence. A judge again found the facts necessary to sentence Hurst to death, and the Florida Supreme Court affirmed that decision.

Hurs’s lawyers in an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court argued his sentence violated the Sixth Amendment.

According to an AP story, the Supreme Court returned the case to the Florida Supreme Court, which now must review Hurst’s sentence and determine if he should get a new sentencing hearing.

Justice Sam Alito was the lone dissenter in the ruling. He said that Florida judges are simply reviewing what juries in such cases have already decided.

According to Sheedy, Florida’s Catholic conference, which is the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, “has long identified the need to address Florida’s flawed death sentencing scheme despite our position that life imprisonment without parole is an alternative that keeps society safe and renders the death penalty unnecessary.”

“Florida currently requires unanimous verdicts in every case in which juries are summoned, with the exception of sentencing someone to death,” he continued in his statement to CNS. “We urge the Florida Legislature to respond to this decision by passing legislation which requires juries, as a collective body and conscience of the community, to be unanimous in the finding of aggravating circumstances and in recommending death over life imprisonment.”

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