International News

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. (Photo: Jeffrey Bruno.)

By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent

NEW YORK — Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish activist who has taken the world by storm through her climate strikes, is practically a household name, even receiving Pope Francis’s encouragement for her efforts demanding global action on the environment.

Lesser known – but also enjoying Vatican backing and U.N. support – is the work of 29- year-old, Molly Burhans, who 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.

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 The Tablet.

It’s been a busy few 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.

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 The Tablet. “And the Year of Mercy was absolutely critical for welcoming me back to the Church for all of her flaws and graces.”

Over the past three years, she’s spent countless hours on the phone with Catholic dioceses inquiring about property records and writing letters to Vatican curial officials to navigate canon law in the digital age with the belief that the combination of ecological and social data can help the Church “scale up” its efforts to better understand its land.

“The way we understand and manage our land is a multiplier for every singe Catholic ministry,” she insists. “If we want to talk about feeding the hungry, we need a place to grow that food. If we want to talk about clothing the naked, those resources are based in the land. The land is our common home.”

As one of only seven young people to receive the U.N.’s Young Champions of the Earth award, she will now receive more funding and training in an effort to continue to ramp of her efforts to lead the Church into the digital age.

Although she recognizes that some Catholics are wary of the U.N., writing it off as “big, bureaucratic, and inefficient,” she’s encouraging them not “to throw the whole thing out,” and to be grateful for its partnership with faith inspired institutions and organizations.

“This is motivated for love of neighbor,” Burhans is quick to point out. “And what you do to your neighbor downstream has a moral dimension.”

While individuals ranging from high ranking Vatican officials to local pastors are quick to solicit her help and are inundating her with requests to take advantage of the technology she’s helped to develop, she’s hoping that the Catholic community will also put their money where their mouth is in supporting the work of Goodlands.

“The only group that hasn’t come to table is donors,” she said, noting that besides technical contractors, she is the sole employee of the non-profit.

Following last month’s climate strikes – which drew some four million participants to the streets in cities across the globe – some skeptics were quick to point out Thunberg’s young age, labeling her as naïve in her belief that young people can successfully lobby international institutions and bring about change and were brainwashed regarding the facts of climate change.

But Burhans – and by extension Thunberg – believe that they’re simply following the science and responding with human empathy.

“I don’t just see data and numbers, I see people’s lives,” she insists. “And that’s what Greta is doing, too. We feel the data.”

“We aren’t in it for awards,” she continues. “We’re in it because we love our neighbors.”