Helping the Church use its land for good, one community at a time

Molly Burhans, a mapper extraordinaire, is gaining international attention for connecting the Church with cutting-edge mapping and land-use planning tools

A global celebration this Wednesday of the modern miracles of high-tech mapping calls to mind an often underappreciated element of the Church’s charitable mission: helping its members use the land for good.

Assisting Catholic communities to benefit from smart land use is the passion of Molly Burhans—a shining example of the Catholic marriage of faith and reason, all brought together for the good of the world.

Burhans wants to help her fellow Catholics be better disciples of Jesus Christ by better managing their real estate.

And that’s one thing the Church has a lot of.

By most estimates, the Catholic Church is one of the largest landowners in the world with some 177 million acres of land in its parishes, schools, universities, monasteries, cemeteries, dioceses, and retreat centers. This land is found in almost every ecosystem and nation of the globe.

In the modern world, managing this amount of real estate takes digital tools—the sorts used by governments, non-governmental agencies, and the private sector. But what about the Church? What of its parishes—large and small—and its other communal institutions? How can they—we—benefit from such tools and mapping?

That’s where Burhans and her team come in.

Burhans, here in the apostolic palace, brings modern
mapping to the long-standing Catholic work of
mapping the world for the good of all.

The Chief Cartographer for the first global computerized maps of the Church, Burhans has an M.S. in Ecological Design from the Conway School and a B.A. in Philosophy from Canisius College.

She is also the founder and executive director of GoodLands, a cutting-edge organization that “provides the information, insights, and implementation tools for the Catholic Church to leverage its landholdings to address pressing issues, from environmental destruction to mass human migration,” according to its website.

“Taking care of the poor—of life—are matters that are connected with how we use the land,” Burhans told Catholic Ecology. “There is a holistic understanding stressed by the last three popes—a moral dimension to how we use the land.”

So how do Catholic institutions of all makes, sizes, and vocations live out such papal teachings?

“Catholic parish initiation”

Mapping in the twenty-first century uses electronic data systems known as Geographic Information Systems or “GIS” for short. GIS provides the foundation for most governmental planning and mapping—whether on the federal, state, county, or municipal level. Likewise, it’s the lifeblood of any engineering firm or academic institution that examines the natural, built, and even the social environment.

(GIS even has an annual celebration. This year, GIS Day is Wednesday, November 14. But the entire week will see GIS practitioners and users gather and otherwise make merry in honor of this most-amazing tool.)

GIS is so powerful and flexible that it can digitally map every inch of land owned by the Catholic Church—and not just map it, but analyze how each parcel is used, how the land can be protected, its real estate value, as well as its physical makeup—its height, soil types, and any other characteristic that can be measured, digitized, and put to good use.

“Wealthier parishes have options about how to best understand and use their land,” Burhans said. “They can build rain gardens, plant trees—all for the good of the environment and human health. But what about poor parishes? They can barely provide food for the poor. How do we help them help the land and thus people?”

Burhans cares deeply about the answers to those questions. As it turns out, the answers have a lot to do with her expertise: mapping and evaluating the proper use of land. The prudent and moral use. And to do that, landowners must understand the financial value of their real estate as well as possess something called “spatial awareness.”

"We come together to take charge of this home which has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good which exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast. In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God." Pope Francis, Laudato Si'

“Building good spatial awareness—a good understanding of the land—can help a parish reduce cooling costs, for instance, which can make a large financial benefit that can then help the poor,” Burhans said.

In other words, spatial awareness is simply knowing how much land you own and what options exist for protecting and using it, for the benefit of the common good. That’s where tools like GIS are crucial.

But GIS mapping and the use of cutting-edge analytical tools are typically out of reach for many Catholic communities. So then, how can such groups benefit from modern forms of spatial awareness?

And that’s where GoodLands comes in.

What’s needed is something Burhans calls “Catholic parish initiation.” That is, offering parishes and other Catholic communities the information, tools, and training to make smart, financially prudent, and virtuous land-use decisions.

“Our goal is to create sustainable business models for non-profits” around land use, Burhans said. And to do so with first-rate data and mapping and a Christian worldview.

One way GoodLands does this is by offering Catholic communities basic technical services, as would any engineering or architectural consulting firm—services including mapping, data management, and planning, all tempered and ennobled through the eyes of faith.

"The ecological crisis ... is closely linked to the notion of development itself and our understanding of man in his relationship to others and to the rest of creation." Benedict XVI, 2010 World Message of Peace

On larger scales, GoodLands elevates industry-standard land-use tools with its Catholic Geographic System—a Catholic version of GIS. This digitized system helps stakeholders improve communications among each other and to “thoughtfully plan how their land can promote environmental and social well-being while increasing fiscal sustainability.”

In other words, the Catholic Geographic System can perform what the Vatican’s medieval cartographers did—help the Church and the world understand where things are and how they’re related, and then share that information for the good of all.

A third effort just underway at GoodLands is the Catholic Parks Network. This initiative will focus on protecting areas of significant biodiversity richness, especially those under threat. While the official start date for the opening of the Catholic Park Network is September 2020, those interested in enrolling their land into the network can do so at the GoodLands website now.

Groundbreaking attention

Last, GoodLands has an artistic side to it. In good Catholic tradition, it’s an organization devoted to championing beauty. GoodLands does this through its ARISE initiative, founded by composer Julian Darius Revie, who has premiered his work from St. Peter’s Basilica to Carnegie Hall and was the winner of the 2016 music composition competition run by the pontificate for culture. ARISE seeks to bring together artists of all backgrounds and genres to celebrate the beauty, goodness, and order of creation.

The uniqueness of Burhans’ work and the GoodLands projects have caught the attention of many. The Vatican has invited her to a number of meetings for her expertise and passion for bolstering the Church’s eco- and charitable efforts.

The secular world has also shown interest. Burhans will be a speaker at Yale University's observance of GIS Day. And last month, Forbes magazine featured Burhans for her recognition as a Fellow by the philanthropic group Ashoka—the first award to a Catholic group.

“It’s an exciting time” for Catholic philanthropy, Burhans said.

And, indeed, it’s an exciting time for the Church, thanks to Molly Burhans and the team at GoodLands.

For more information on how your parish or other Catholic community can benefit from GoodLands, visit its Homepage here.

Photos: Top/Ashoka. Image of Burhans with maps/used with permission

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.