Mapping Catholic land; fighting climate change

Molly Burhans, a liberal arts graduate of Canisius College, a Catholic college in Buffalo, is leading a major project to help the Catholic Church map its vast landholdings in order to help it fight climate change. David Owen of The New Yorker tells the inspiring story of how Burhans put her studies in philosophy, science, and mathematics to work-out her Christian faith in the world. Here is a taste:

In the summer of 2016, Molly Burhans, a twenty-six-year-old cartographer and environmentalist from Connecticut, spoke at a Catholic conference in Nairobi, and she took advantage of her modest travel stipend to book her return trip through Rome. When she arrived, she got a room in the cheapest youth hostel she could find, and began sending e-mails to Vatican officials, asking if they’d be willing to meet with her. She wanted to discuss a project she’d been working on for months: documenting the global landholdings of the Catholic Church. To her surprise, she received an appointment in the office of the Secretariat of State.

On the day of the meeting, she couldn’t find the entrance that she’d been told to use. She hadn’t bought a sim card for her phone, so she couldn’t call for help, and, in a panic, she ran almost all the way around Vatican City. The day was hot, and she was sweating. At last, she spotted a monk, and she asked him for directions. He gave her a funny look: the entrance was a few steps away. A pair of Swiss Guards, in their blue, red, and yellow striped uniforms, led her to an elevator. She took it to the third loggia of the Apostolic Palace, and walked down a long marble hallway. On the wall to her right were windows draped with gauzy curtains; to her left were enormous fresco maps, commissioned in the early sixteenth century, depicting the world as it was known then.

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.

Read the rest here. This piece is so good it was hard to find an excerpt for the blog.