U.N. honors Catholic activist using data to fight climate change

Molly Burhans, founder and executive director of Goodlands, receives the UN Young Champions of the Earth Award. (Credit: photo courtesy of Jeffrey Bruno.)

While less known than Greta Thunberg, 29 year old Molly Burhans also enjoys Vatican backing and UN support for her work on climate.  

While initially discerning to be a nun, discovered that the Catholic Church is one of the world’s largest landowners and is now seeking to steward such property – and the data that goes with it – for the common good.

Last month, Burhans was the recipient of the United Nations’ Young Champions of the Earth Prize for North America becoming the first faith-based organization to receive such an honor for her work in founding Goodlands, an organization which is now mapping the Church’s global real estate holdings to help better understand climate change, migration, and a range of interconnected ecological concerns.

Mapping the Church’s property

While explaining her work, Burhans likes to cite the luminary writer J.R.R. Tolkien who once remarked that he “wisely started with a map.” “That’s the way to understand the environment and we can’t make sound environmental decisions without them,” she said in an interview with Crux.

It’s been a busy weeks for Burhans, who took part alongside Thunberg in the New York City climate strike and was one of the presenters at the annual high-level Social Good Summit last month aimed at promoting environmental activism and expertise.

While volunteering at a local convent during college, Burhans observed two large parcels of land bequeathed to the religious order only to realize that the convent, like most Catholic institutions, had no proper way of tracking or accounting for all of their land holdings.

Most dioceses in the United States and beyond are in a similar predicament, not to mention the Vatican itself.

During a visit to Rome, Burhans sheepishly approached the Vatican’s Secretary of State to see if she might be able to partner with them in an effort to digitize the Church’s maps. In 2015, she launched Goodlands and a year later unveiled the first ever database of maps of the Catholic Church.

“When I started no one seemed to have an understanding of what a map is beyond a fresco,” she told Crux, recalling her early days working with Church officials.

The power of these maps, she believes will help other Catholic institutions, such as NGOs, schools, and other dioceses, better understand Catholic infrastructure and demographics.

177 milion acres

In sum, the Church owns an estimated 177 million acres of land. While such ownership presents all sorts of challenges regarding oversight and maintenance, Burhans sees an incredible opportunity.

“It offers the possibility of holistic planning,” she said of the power of maps.

Burhans describes the Church as a “low-tech actor,” but she’s hoping to change that, citing Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato si’, as helping to restore a proper understanding of technology as something that can be used in service of people and the planet.

While Burhans wasn’t raised in an explicitly religious environment – her parents had left the Church when she was young – her study of philosophy at Canisius College would eventually nudge her back toward the Catholic Church.

“The Catholic Church had me at systematic theology,” she said, describing the “cosmic sigh of relief” she found in the faith, leading her to find herself “so reluctantly in love with Catholicism and with Jesus.”

As she inched toward confirmation, she began the Ignatian spiritual exercises, which cemented her love of Jesuit spirituality – and was bolstered by the witness of the world’s first ever Jesuit pope.

“Pope Francis allowed me not to be afraid to come back to the Church,” she says.

She cites Laudato si’ and the 2016 Year of Mercy as both the spiritual and intellectual backbone of Goodlands.

“Laudato si’ shows how life, land, and the environment are all connected and how Catholic Social Teaching relates to the environment,” she told Crux. “And the Year of Mercy was absolutely critical for welcoming me back to the Church for all of her flaws and graces.”