Meet the millennial who's mapping the Catholic Church's land holdings to fight climate change

Thanks to this fantastic New Yorker profile, I just learned about Good Lands, an environmental initiative run by Molly Burhans that aims to catalog the landholdings of the Catholic Church in order to protect the planet.

Burhans has been a deeply committed Catholic since she was twenty-one. For a year or two, when she was in college, she considered becoming a nun. Later, though, as she grew increasingly concerned about climate change, her ambitions broadened, and she began to think of ways in which the Catholic Church could be mobilized as a global environmental force. "There are 1.2 billion Catholics," she told me. "If the Church were a country, it would be the third most populous, after China and India." The Church, furthermore, is probably the world's largest non-state landowner. The assets of the Holy See, combined with those of parishes, dioceses, and religious orders, include not just cathedrals, convents, and Michelangelo's Pietà but also farms, forests, and, by some estimates, nearly two hundred million acres of land.

Burhans concluded that the Church had the means to address climate issues directly, through better land management, and that it was also capable of protecting populations that were especially vulnerable to the consequences of global warming. 

The Catholic Church as an institution has a lot of power. It also has an unfortunate track record for abusing that power. But like any religion or institution, that doesn't necessarily apply to all practitioners of the faith, or the sects within the church. Burhans is careful to clarify on the Good Lands website that her organization is not affiliated with the Catholic Church. According to the Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale University, she was inspired to action by the Christian Anarchism of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers Movement. You can see this illustrated in her story in The New Yorker, where she essentially forces her way into the Vatican—inspired by Pope Francis's "Laudato Si" and comments about climate change—and tells them straight-up how she wants to use their institutional power to further her plans for eco-social justice.

As a recovering Catholic, that's something I can get behind.

Burhans work is still underway—the Catholic Church has a lot of land, and there's a lot of work involved in mapping it, tracking down land ownership records, and navigating the local laws to figure out how to place that land into a trust. But she's made a lot of progress as well, including being recognized as a Young Champion of the Earth by the United Nations' Environment Program in 2019. And it's pretty inspiring to see what she's done so far.

How a Young Activist Is Helping Pope Francis Battle Climate Change [David Owen / The New Yorker]

Good Lands

Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons