The Catholic church owns a huge amount of property – not only churches and monasteries, but farms and forests. It controls an estimated 177 million acres of land around the world.

So the decisions it makes about how to use this land can have a major impact on the climate.

“They’re kind of one of the institutional heavyweights in this,” says Molly Burhans, executive director of Goodlands.

The organization encourages the Catholic Church to use its property for environmental and social benefit.

Six years ago, she discovered to her surprise that the church lacked a modern, centralized inventory of its worldwide properties.

“They hadn’t really had a map update since the Holy Roman Empire,” she says.

A year later, with permission from the Vatican, Burhans and her team began the painstaking process of locating and digitizing property records and deeds.

Now they’re developing a geographical database and maps of the church’s landholdings. She 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.

So with the help of modern technology, Burhans hopes to help the church put its land to good use.

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media and Diana Madson