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Issues of the Environment: Motivating the Catholic Church to become more sustainable in land use practices

Molly Burhans
Molly Burhans


  • Churches aren’t generally thought of as environmental organizations, but they control a lot of land. Church properties put to prudent environmental usage could be a substantial force for good. The Catholic church alone owns a huge amount of property so the decisions it makes about land use can have a major impact on the climate.
  • In the spring of 2015, Pope Francis presented “Laudato Si’,” a forty-thousand-word encyclical on reckless consumerism, ecological degradation, and global warming. Environmental activists celebrated, but the document did not offer much in the way of implementation or plans.
  • Molly Burhans is a cartographer and environmentalist. She founded GoodLands which is an organization aiming to mobilize the Catholic Church to use its land for environmental and social justice purposes. She will give a talk in Ann Arbor on Sunday, June 16th at St. Mary Student Parish. It is co-sponsored by the Sierra Club Huron Valley Group, St. Mary Student Parish, the Lutheran (ELCA) congregations of Washtenaw County, St. Francis Catholic Church, Temple Beth Emeth, and Ignatian Spirituality & Yoga. The discussion is to focus on how churches can use their land resources to better serve the Earth and battle climate change.
  • About eight years ago, as a lay Catholic without special connections, Molly offered her expertise in GIS to the Vatican to help the Catholic church map their global land holdings. Surprisingly, the church had not updated an inventory since the Holy Roman Empire. Using the latest in powerful GIS (geographic information systems) tools, she created layered maps that can store, visualize, analyze, and interpret geographic data. She is also the founder of GoodLands, an organization that encourages the Catholic Church to use its property for environmental and social benefit.
  • Burhans says it’s a critical first step toward making sustainable land management decisions – for example, to conserve forested land that can absorb and store carbon.
  • Some of the means by which churches can use their resources for the environment include overhauling buildings with energy efficient infrastructure, adding solar to generate electricity, creating wildlife habitat that can connect parks of preserves via a “corridor” to preserve genetic diversity that is critical for species preservation, and using sustainable land practices like replacing mowed areas with pollinator habitat or removing exotic invasives.
  • There are approximately 150 churches in Washtenaw County, and many have implemented some form of environmentally beneficial change. That includes stormwater management and pollinator habitat installed at, Grace Fellowship Church and Faithway Baptist Church in Ypsilanti. Other churches, including Ann Arbor Seventh-day Adventist Church, Campus Chapel (Ann Arbor), First Congregational Church, First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, and Genesis of Ann Arbor have installed solar to offset their energy usage. The First Presbyterian Church of Saline has an environmental stewardship group that has worked to make the church buildings more energy efficient, educate its parishioners on conservation and grow food in its garden for Food Gatherers.


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU. And welcome to another edition of Issues of the Environment. I'm David Fair. And, as we often do, we're going to explore long-term land management and environmental sustainability today. But we're going to do it with a different kind of focus. What role do you think religious institutions have in environmental stewardship? Well, that's a question a young New York native asked herself and how she ended up founding a nonprofit called GoodLands. Its mission is to mobilize the Catholic Church to use its land for environmental and social justice purposes. Molly Burhans is going to bring her message and methodology to an appearance at St. Mary's Student Parish in Ann Arbor this Sunday, July 16th. But, today, we get a sneak preview. Molly, thank you so much for taking time to talk with me today.

Molly Burnhams: It's great to be here. Thanks, Dave, for having me.

David Fair: Your educational background led you to a master's degree in ecological design. I'm curious as to what point did your personal investment in sustainability intersect with your faith in result in creation of GoodLands?

Molly Burnhams: Well, it was kind of a winding road, I would say, for the faith side, though. I've always felt compelled to protect nature and to steward it. I grew up with parents, a mom who actually grew up in Ann Arbor, who took me out into the wildlife and the wilderness growing up, backpacking, hiking. As I got older, I actually was quite nonreligious. And I think, like many people, I was very dissatisfied with institutional religion. But I started just evolving as a person and really searching for the meaning of life, like most teenagers, I would say, in nonsense and kind of figuring out that love wasn't a sufficient answer. And the question became, "How do I live that love?" And somewhere along the journey between debates with Jesuits, I ended up coming back to the Catholic Church and my Catholic faith. And, in that time, I had spent a ton of time in soup kitchen ministries, homeless ministries. And I just saw that we had all this land that could really multiply the impact of that work. It just seemed like a logical fit to help the church steward her land. Now, there was no larger network of conservation. There was really not much of anything when I started.

David Fair: But you did become the first-ever chief cartographer and created the first unified digital global map of the Catholic Church's property holdings. Now, how much property does the church have globally that we may be able to use for some of those purposes you described?

Molly Burnhams: I'm so happy that you bring this up because it is often confused in media about me. So, let me clarify. I have not mapped all the Catholic properties globally, and I do not believe anyone should. I think there's a lot of security risks in having that kind of data about a major world religion when it's consolidated. What I did map with a large team that I was the head geographer for was the jurisdictions of the Catholic Church. There was no unified digital or global period map of the dioceses. So, that's kind of like the counties of the Catholic Church or the provinces, which is the level up, kind of like a state, or even the bishops' conference or no global map. So, I started with that.

David Fair: Issues of the Environment and our conversation with the founder of GoodLands, Molly Burhans, continues on 89 one WEMU. Well, Pope Francis is really the first to verbalize support for responsible and compassionate environmentalism, he has called for an end to the use of fossil fuels and for an end to what he calls, and I quote, "the senseless war against creation." End quote. And he's called on people to repent for ecological sins. There's a lot of strong words in there. Do you see equally strong actions being taken, or is it still, at this point, kind of a philosophical position?

Molly Burhans: I would say not as strong action as I would wish, but there is more being done. I think something that's really a game changer that's happened in the last year is the passing of the Build Back Better bill. Before, there was no mechanism for any nonprofit or religious entity that doesn't pay property taxes to get financial incentives to implement a green energy or conservation program. So now, that mechanism is actually built in, and we're seeing a lot of momentum gathering from religious groups across the board. It has definitely been very slow, much slower than I'd wish, just kind of moving towards making our land reflect our mission. I think of the poet Wendell Berry. I believe he said, "What you do unto your land upstream, you do to your neighbors downstream." And, you know, there is such a moral dimension, as you said, strong roots, then it is a sin, if we are poisoning our neighbors through our land use practices, through what we're doing on our site. And it really highlights how interconnected we all are with our landscapes and our history and each other.

David Fair: The real power of the Catholic Church, while the Pope is the leader, are the members of each congregation. And a survey found in 2022, 82% of Catholics who are Democrats or lean Democratic say that global climate change is an extremely or very serious problem. But just a quarter of Republican-leaning Catholics say the same, much like the rest of the country. What message do you take to the communities and to the spiritual sites that you visit and the institution leaders that you meet with?

Molly Burhans: Well, you have to sit down with real people and get off the screen on the Internet. Almost everyone supports it. Everyone, I should say that I've met, supports stewarding their environment. The climate change conversation, I think, that usually focuses on CO2 and fossil fuels and all this stuff that has been more politicized. There's a certain point where you can't really have a conversation with people who don't testify behind that.

David Fair: I'm aware.

Molly Burhans: You know, I think the closest thing is if you wear a black shirt outside versus a white shirt, you're going to get hotter because it has more, you know, heat capacity. And that's CO2. But even the simple explanation like that sometime sets people off. It's an important part, I believe, ignoring that whole side of things, the greenhouse gas side, and really just getting down to land use. That's something that I've seen that everyone across every political divide. They meet there, and they love it. You know, we need to have our ecosystems intact with good biodiversity to support outdoor activities. And it doesn't matter your political persuasion to support the work. So, we take kind of an approach where we help digitize a diocese or whatever to sort through their portfolio of properties. And we really use these digital maps to layer on not just environmental data, also financial market data and social data to help them really make more informed decisions, because making the initial maps is the most work. And by helping give them more useful information than just the environment, it helps them jump into projects and be more accepting.

David Fair: So, you've answered in part the final question that we have time for today. I want to come back to the intersection of science and action, spirituality and faith. I'm sure you're familiar with the phrase, "Faith without works is dead." So, what's next in the work effort to bring about the full buy-in from the church, its parishioners, and the members of all the various religions, institutions and denominations to work in this same direction and in a more collective sense?

Molly Burhans: Yeah. So, it it's quite interesting when you look at the model and the work that I've developed. It's not just for Catholics. I love James Joyce's quote. "Here comes Catholic. Here comes everyone." When we look at Catholic health care, ideally, it should be serving everyone that comes in the door with excellent health care, with preferential option to the poor. Catholic education--you don't have to be Catholic to get a good education from a Catholic educational institution. So, the goal, I think, for Catholic environmentalism, was also think of how we can make something that serves the world and supports others in the sense. And the model that I've developed--this approach--can be scaled to any other large landholder. And you started to get requests from municipalities and private landholders even. And the Evangelical Alliance approached us. I've had a coalition of Buddhist monasteries approached me from Southeast Asia. So, there's a lot of interest in this. And it really is a kind of like, "Here comes everyone, okay?" So, we figured out how we can really scale scientifically grounded values informed. Land use, planning and management for the largest non-governmental network of landholders in the world. Now, all these other people can benefit from it. The next step is to make it, like, really go to the next level, definitely the Vatican, a cartography institute there. So, in 2018, Pope Francis personally approved that I establish a cartography institute there. And I gave a counteroffer to him. I'm still hopeful it might happen, but so that institute would enable first these global maps of jurisdictions that I've made to have a home in the Vatican where they belong. That center would also help create the policy. And that center could help make, you know, a foundation of geographic policy, so that the work that I've done could be scaled by anyone in the church with their local capacity, but done so safely and respectfully. And, you know, GoodLands--I'm turning it actually into a becorporate now, and I'm looking for aligned investors because there's just not any really funding. So, what we really, really need to see is the rubbers hit the road and people with money to step up and understand this exciting opportunity to build out this emerging charism within the faith and also to help this critical movement and moment.

David Fair: There's no question that there needs to be a global approach and you have to be sensitive to different parts of the world and how you go about the business of doing that. At the same time, I couldn't help but thinking, as you were explaining all of that, that, in many ways, it comes back to something of an addage that we've used around here for a long time. And that is, "Think local first."

Molly Burhans: Yeah, exactly. And there's a lot that people can do in their backyards. You know, the well-off parish, it isn't worried about getting clothes on people's back and food in their mouths. They're the ones that have the space to do, say, a tree-planting program. But, in reality, they could plant 500 trees in the semi-rural parish, or you could plant 50 or even five in the downtown urban parish with no urban tree canopy. And the impact of that on people and the local ecosystem, even, like, adjusting to urban heat island is going to be magnitudes more for magnitudes less. There just needs to be, I think, more engaging educational material out there to help people really see the possibilities.

David Fair: Well, we will most certainly look forward to learning more and hearing about how better to engage when you make your visit to Ann Arbor. Thank you so much for the time and the preview today, Molly. I appreciate it.

Molly Burhans: Thank you so much, Dave. This has been wonderful.

David Fair: That is Molly Burhans. She is founder of the GoodLands nonprofit for now, seeking to change and grow. And it is seeking to mobilize the Catholic Church to use its properties worldwide for environmental and social justice. Molly will appear at St. Mary's Student Parish at 331 Thompson Street in Ann Arbor this coming Sunday. She's going to be speaking from 3 to 4:30. Now, you can find out more information by visiting our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment--it's produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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