Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: Miami’s Catholic leaders need to heed Pope Francis

South Florida could use a visit from Pope Francis, new champion of the environment.
South Florida could use a visit from Pope Francis, new champion of the environment. AP

South Florida could use a visit from Pope Francis, new champion of the environment.

The charismatic pontiff, scheduled to travel to Cuba and address the U.S. Congress in September, would find among us a cafeteria-Catholic political leadership ripe for the ripping.

For starters, we’ve got climate-change denier, God-invoking presidential candidate Marco Rubio, whose religious journey has taken him from Catholic to Mormon to Catholic to Baptist and back to Catholic now, although the “Francis effect” — aka “liberal thought” — might change that again.

This, too, is home to Rubio’s friendly rival in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Catholic-convert Jeb Bush, who wants religion to make us better people, but not necessarily better politicians. Or that’s what I think he said in response to Pope Francis’ encyclical document on the environment, Laudato Si (Praise Be to You). But there could be another answer tomorrow.

And we’ve got Catholic-schooled Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who never met a scrub pine whose space he didn’t think needed to be paved — and is now contemplating further ruining the Everglades.

Instead of going to Paris for an upcoming world climate-change conference — Miami being ground-zero for rising seas — the mayor’s gone to the City of Light to “research” an idea for an aerospace show at an airstrip in the Everglades — on the list of UNESCO’s Endangered World Heritage sites.

Every time I hear Pope Francis speak on issues that make world headlines and fit Miami like a glove, I think of these Miamians.

“Believers,” Pope Francis said, “must feel challenged to live in a way consonant with their faith.”

Is anybody listening?

Not so much.

As the Pope was delivering the first-ever encyclical on the environment, calling attention to climate change and the pillaging of the world’s natural resources, the Catholic county mayor and his powerful allies were wheeling and dealing to bring the cachet of the Paris Air Show to the Everglades. The mayor is willing to spook the wild life with the roar of jets, spew fumes over endangered habitats, and bring in hordes of neck-craning air show enthusiasts and airplane manufacturers to the Everglades in the name of … money.

This latest boondoggle of an idea returns to an old, discarded and highly controversial proposal to build a jetport among the wildlife in the River of Grass.

“This isn’t just a little air show,” Jonathan Ullman, senior field organizer for the Sierra Club, tells me. “This is the largest air trade show in the industry. It’s bringing commercial jets, rockets. … It’s unfathomable.”

But there’s not a stick of green that won’t go unpaved in the name of growing the economy, collateral damage to community be damned.

Pope Francis’ 184-page teaching document on the environment would make excellent in-flight reading for Gimenez and his summer travel buddies.

Better yet, wouldn’t it be great to see Pope Francis remind these folks in the flesh that it’s not enough to enroll the kids in Belen Jesuit or Sacred Heart, or to graduate from the local Catholic university with a degree in public administration?

Pope Francis has made a lot of people around the world uncomfortable — including those who surround him in the immensely wealthy Vatican — and he’d have a lot of work to do here to shake up the Catholics-in-charge.

“The leaders of Miami-Dade County are in denial on so many issues,” Ullman says. “All of the development areas are going to be flooded, from Virginia Key, where they’re putting the boat show, to all of developed downtown. The county is just not taking climate change seriously and that’s very dangerous.”

It’ll take a miracle for our cafeteria Catholics to leave the Everglades alone and pay attention to climate change — but maybe Pope Francis can deliver.