As spiritual messages go, Pope Francis’s sweeping manifesto on climate change comes down to some simple advice for those of us in South Florida living at ground zero: turn off the lights, turn up the AC, don’t buy so many cars or a big house.
“We all need to have a conversion, an ecological conversion,” the Rev. Juan Sosa, pastor at St. Joseph Church, said Thursday during a briefing at the Archdiocese of Miami on a 184-page document that put the 78-year-old Argentine pope squarely in the center of climate politics.
“Having less in the world is more,” Sosa said. “Look at that and think about it.”
Called an encyclical and considered a critical teaching document for Catholic clergy, the long-anticipated statement wades into the complicated and charged issue of climate change. The topic is especially relevant in vulnerable South Florida, where rising seas have worsened seasonal flooding, threatened drinking water supplies and provided a stage for the world to examine the slow-motion effects of rising seas. Catholics from Caribbean and South American countries, which face similar threats, also make up a large part of the diocese.
The call from Francis for a “bold cultural revolution” also carried a pointed political message. Despite widespread acceptance by scientists, both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — two hometown Republican presidential contenders with ties to the church — also have expressed skepticism that humans have propelled climate change. And Florida’s Republican leadership has done little to plan for changes.
Now Francis, head of an institution considered a safe harbor for conservative beliefs, calls out governments trapped in a “myopia of power politics” for failing to act.
“Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age,” the pope writes. “But we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way.”
Even before its release, critics complained the pope was over-stepping his theological duties. Rush Limbaugh called the document a “Marxist climate rant.” On Tuesday, Bush said “religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” Wednesday he softened his tone, saying there had to be a “consensus about how to approach this without hollowing out our industrial core.”
Miami Bishop Peter Baldacchino, who studied science and chemistry at the University of Malta, conceded the declaration may not sit well with all Catholics. But the document, which dives into issues as complex as renewable fuels, genetically modified plants and industrial waste, now becomes the “teachings of the church,” based on science, he said.
“Many of us already have firsthand experience with this,” he said. “It is a wake-up call.”
Clergy in South Florida and around the globe now begin “the process of education,” he said, understanding how to better care for the planet and accept responsibility.
In addition to blaming change on human activity, the document also tries to put a divisive issue into spiritual context. In many ways, it tries to connect people to a problem that may seem distant and hard to grasp — projections for sea rise and polar ice melt often span centuries — by urging them to make simple, everyday changes in the way they live.
“People are not the problem. It is the throw-away culture that is the problem,” Baldacchino said. “We’re not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and one social. But one complex crisis.”
Although he was not able to attend, Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who chaired the committee on environment at this year’s U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has said the church has long considered the issue a moral one based on the belief that man must act as a steward for the planet.
“However, it is much more difficult today for people to connect the dots and see that there is a linkage between a natural ecology and a human ecology,” Wenski wrote in a statement released Thursday that also calls for marriage “in law and custom” to be defined as as a union of opposite sexes.
Although the encyclical is the first to focus solely on the environment, the church has increasingly worked to improve conservation, said architect David Prada, the archdiocese’s senior director of building and properties. At Our Lady of Guadalupe, a new parish being built in Doral, 80 percent of construction material is being recycled; slag cement, a mixture of recycled iron dust and concrete, is being used; and lights are LED. Low-flow toilets are being installed along with native plants for landscaping. Even sawdust from the construction of pews is being re-used as bedding for farm animals, Prada said.
Across the archdiocese, at schools and older parishes, church officials are making repairs with an eye toward conservation, he said.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is what the pope called on us to do: use the resources we have today responsibly so they’re here for our kids tomorrow.”
While the pope offers a big message, Sosa said he did not expect sweeping changes immediately.
"He says if you begin small greater things will happen," Sosa said. “Like a mustard seed, it will grow."