A publication of Sacred Heart University
The Attack on Pope Francis
Biden, Amess and Us

Can the Church Live Up to the Glasgow Climate Goals?

The more than 100 world leaders gathered at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow meet under immense pressure this month as environmentalists warn that immediate action must be taken to prevent the worst projected effects of climate change.

One of the main purposes of holding the conference is nations’ failure to fulfill the commitments they made in the Paris Climate Accords. Signers of the accord committed to taking the necessary measures to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels with a goal of limiting it to 1.5 degrees, but they are not on track to do so. A recent report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) revealed the devastating effects that even 1.5 degrees of warming would cause, warning that “unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

Likewise, developed countries’ Paris pledge to provide $100 billion annually to help poorer countries develop sustainably has not been met. Convincing countries to make good on that commitment will be a main goal of COP26.

In his message to COP26, Pope Francis writes, “As the Glasgow Conference begins, all of us are aware that it has the vital task of demonstrating to the entire international community whether there really exists a political will to devote—with honesty, responsibility and courage—greater human, financial and technological resources to mitigating the negative effects of climate change and assisting the poorer and more vulnerable nations most affected by it,” (emphasis added).

The pope should ask the same question of the church: Does there really exist the will to undergo an ecological conversion—not just a conversion of heart, but a physical conversion of church properties?

The Catholic Church is one of the world’s largest landholders. And as Molly Burhans, the founder of GoodLands and the first person to map all of the church’s properties for the first time since the Middle Ages, has shown, that land could be used much more responsibly.

Squaring church property location data with maps of natural resources, water tables, real estate value, accessibility and other metrics, Burhans is able to create informed plans for how best to use the church’s extensive land-holdings, whether that means identifying where to build a Catholic hospital in a remote area in Africa or creating plans for how U.S. dioceses should use their many vacant properties.

Unfortunately, this work is underfunded and has not been prioritized by a church whose finances are already stretched thin.

In 2018, Pope Francis offered to create a Vatican cartography institute with Burhans at the head—the Vatican’s first female-founded department. The offer came with no budget—just a small stipend that would not cover living expenses. Burhans developed a counter-proposal with a budget around a million dollars—modest for this type of project—for a ten-month trial period. She recently traveled to Rome to discuss the plan with Vatican officials. Still, it is unclear whether the Vatican will accept the counter-offer.

Burhans is certainly exceptional in her field, having been named, just this year, one of the National Geographic Society’s Emerging Explorers, but lay Catholics like her have been taking the lead in the ecological conversion—in contrast, a new study reveals, with the U.S. bishops.

A recently-released Creighton University analysis of 12,000 columns written by U.S. bishops in their diocesan papers from 2014 to 2018 showed that only 93 (less than 1 percent) of the columns referenced climate change, and only 57 of them did so in a way that suggested climate change was real. In short, “Laudato Si’” went largely ignored by American bishops. Only 20-30 out of the around 180 dioceses in America have taken steps toward converting their properties to be more eco-friendly. (In contrast, a 2020 Princeton survey revealed that Laudato Si’ had significantly shifted American Catholics toward viewing climate change as an important political issue that carried with it a moral imperative to act.)

Burhans’ work and the presence of Catholic grassroots environmentalist groups at Glasgow this month show that there does exist among the American Catholic laity the will for an ecological conversion. The question, then, is whether the American bishops and the Holy See have the “will to devote—with honesty, responsibility and courage—greater financial and technological resources to mitigating the negative effects of climate change” which affect both them and their adherents. As Dorothy Fortenberry wrote in a recent America essay, “Nothing will change the church more profoundly than the color green ceasing to be ordinary.”


Colleen Dulle is a writer and producer at America Media, where she hosts the weekly news podcast “Inside the Vatican.” Her forthcoming biography of the French poet, social worker and mystic Madeleine Delbrêl will be published by Liturgical Press.

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