The bishops of Florida, minus our dear brother Bishop Gerald Barbarito of Palm Beach who is rapidly recovering from very serious surgery, met Tuesday and yesterday (Wednesday) in the state capitol, Tallahassee. We do it every year, usually always during the first week of the annual legislative session and conclude it with a Red Mass at St. Thomas More Co-cathedral. During the bishops’ visit to Tallahassee, about 350 people, mostly women, come wearing red almost always and they call on their elected representatives to “lobby” for the province’s agenda for the session. They meet with the staff of the Florida Catholic Conference before invading the capitol and they have lunch with us at the Convention Center midday on Wednesday and prior to the Mass. A stirring call to religious liberty was delivered by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to the assembled during the lunch. I hope to share the content of that talk with you soon.
It has been a long custom that during this visit to our state capitol we usually have a meeting with the Governor. In my now nineteen-plus years, I began with Governor Lawton Chiles, followed by Governor Jeb Bush, Governor Charlie Crist, and now Governor Rick Scott. All have been gracious hosts for these meetings, patiently listening and one of us after the other brings up matters of concern to the Church. For some inexplicable reason I have become the spokesman for “health care matters” which was not all that hard until the Governor was suddenly someone who spent his whole professional life in the health care arena.
One aspect this this year’s visits which I wish to share with you, especially in light of the fact that the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS later in this blog) will be hearing soon a case involving capital punishment is that very subject. I do this secure in the knowledge that my comment responses will be overwhelmingly negative and nasty (second only to the immigration issue I might add).
We also met Wednesday afternoon with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi who was also gracious and very hospitable.
On the death penalty, we bishops unanimously wish that it would be abolished in Florida. It is a natural, logical and responsible extension of our commitment to the protection of all human life, born and unborn, and flows from the basic belief that God is the author of all life and to God alone falls the task of determining both birth and death. Seven states in recent years have abolished the death penalty (either the legislative branch supported by the governors or the latter acting alone). There are now about two-thirds of the states where the death penalty no longer exists and then there are Florida and Texas which lead the others in annual executions.
A tandem issue is that Florida is only one of two states (Delaware is the other) which does not require a unanimous jury for the death penalty sentencing phase. We find that an embarrassment of the highest order.
We got no where with either the Governor or the Attorney General on either of these matters, although the former is willing to think through the unanimous jury question. Every Governor during my time here as bishop speaks, truthfully I think, of how much they dislike having to sign the warrants which lead to an execution. I am sure that it is not easy. All have said that they have done so with a clear conscience that the one being executed was indeed guilty of the crime beyond a shadow of a doubt. I believe them also on that. And finally they seek the cover of fulfilling their oath of office to uphold the laws of the state of Florida which I can also understand.
Governors Bush and Scott have embraced our pro-life position on abortion and euthanasia. Governor Chiles respectfully demurred always and who knows what Governor Crist’s real position was/is. But it is so hard to get any elected official, pro-life or not, Republican or Democrat to see the natural extension that God alone should determine when we are born and when we will die. Saint John Paul II on the matter of the death penalty, said that while it might be justifiable in the rarest of instances, he knew of no good reason to justify it. Pope Francis has condemned it as barbaric as does the world community at large when it looks as us (the US) from a distance.
Yesterday, four Catholic newspapers/publications of very differing leanings and differences signed a single editorial against the death penalty. What may never be decided in Tallahassee, ever, may be decided soon by SCOTUS as they wrestle with “death by lethal injection” as a form of cruel and unusual punishment. With this court, who knows? Utah is thinking of reinstating the firing squad and will Florida return to using that never too certain to work “electric chair” if this form of execution is ruled unconstitutional. It takes all the restraint which I can manage not to invoke recent images from other parts of the world.
I love my adopted state and I deeply respect everyone elected to public office. They have a hard job. In such cases, one can invoke instead the power of the Holy Spirit. That the same Spirit come upon all those who exercise any measure of control over the beginning and end of life and grant them wisdom to choose life over death, always. Hence, the Red Mass.