Molly Burhans, known at the Vatican as the “Map Lady,” has a vision: to map the Catholic Church’s land around the world in an effort to battle climate change. The environmental activist uses G.I.S. software, which organizes complex data and presents it geographically so it’s easier to analyze and understand, to build a clearer picture of all the assets of the Church.

Owning an estimated two hundred million acres of land, the Catholic Church is “probably the world’s largest non-state landowner,” writes David Owen in a fascinating New Yorker profile of Burhans. The Church’s properties aren’t just cathedrals and convents, but forests and farmlands (and, interestingly, 21 oil wells, some of which have made nearby residents sick from fumes). Through more effective and morally responsible land management, Burhans sees an incredible opportunity for the Church to be at the forefront of climate action, putting its land to better use and protecting vulnerable populations from the effects of global warming. Burhans’ organization, GoodLands — whose mission is to mobilize the Catholic Church to “use land for good” — has also tracked sexual abuse cases involving priests, so there are other massive benefits of mapping the Church via G.I.S.

When she met with the Pope, Turkson acted as her interpreter. She gave Francis a map that showed the percentage of Catholics in every diocese in the world, and explained how that map related to the bigger projects she envisioned. Francis seemed interested, she told me; he said that he had never seen anything like it. Still, their conversation was brief, and she didn’t think anything would come of it. Shortly before she flew home, though, she received an e-mail saying that Francis was interested in establishing a Vatican cartography institute, on a six-month trial basis, with her as its head.

Burhans was elated: this would likely be the first female-founded department in the history of the Roman Curia. Still, she knew that she had to turn him down. The offer came with no budget, other than a small stipend for herself. “If I’d said yes, it would have been a total failure,” she said. So she returned to the United States, and went to work on a blueprint for the kind of cartography institute that she believed the Church needed. When I first spoke with her, in late 2019, the United Nations had recently named her its Young Champion of the Earth for North America, a prize for environmentalists between the ages of eighteen and thirty. She was also working on a proposal for the Vatican which included a seventy-nine-page prospectus for a ten-month trial project, the cost of which she estimated at a little more than a million dollars. The prospectus included her outline for the environmental mission she believed the Church should undertake, as well as explanations (illustrated by interactive maps and graphs) of how G.I.S. could be used to support and coördinate other ecclesiastical activities, among them evangelization, real-estate management, papal security, diplomacy, and ongoing efforts to end sexual abuse by priests. She submitted her prospectus to the Pope’s office, and booked a return to Rome for April, so that she could attend a conference and, she hoped, negotiate a final configuration for the cartography institute with Vatican officials.

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Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.