The Climate Crisis and the Catholic Church’s Mind-blowing Land Holdings

Washington (GGM) Analysis | November 1, 2022 by Noreen Wise, Founder & CEO of Gallant Gold Media; Image Credit: AdobeStock

The Roman Catholic Church is the largest landowner on earth. The Holy See controls 71.6 million hectares around the world, the same surface area as France, according to One More Hectare. Further, much of the 71.6 million hectares is prime real estate, that would fetch a staggering sum if sold.

Tracking the Catholic Church’s land holdings in an effort to learn more about how Catholic leaders are executing the directives outlined in Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical letter, The Care of Our Common Home, is similar to a trail that disappears into the black hole. Apparently there is no master list. But, one little sliver valuation that has been unearthed is that the Vatican property in Australia alone is valued at a conservative $30 billion.

Wikipedia notes that the Holy See’s wealth is “not available due to widespread properties globally.” Suffice it to say that Vatican City’s modest 44 hectares in Rome is the tiny tip of the massive Catholic Church land holdings iceberg.

Speaking of icebergs, it might be best to mention that the globe’s icecaps are now melting at a faster rate than in past decades. In fact, the current icecap melt rate is quicker than the newly improved increased pace of global climate action. 

Does it take a human iceberg as colossal as the Catholic Church to save the world’s shrinking icecaps? Most likely yes.

“It’s about whether life on Earth collapses into a shadow of its former magnificence. It’s about whether humankind thrives and evolves, or descends into a long and brutal dark age on a less habitable planet.”

Peter Kalmus, NASA Climate Scientist, Twitter Oct 8, 2022

The Pope’s Letter

It was in May 2015, the same year the Paris Agreement was adopted by 196 countries at COP21, that Pope Francis drafted a profound papal pronouncement to address the global warming crisis and the perilous condition of our planet: The Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’; The Care for Our Common Home. “I’d like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.” The Pope’s vision was to initiate a discussion with all those of good will across the globe about the care for planet Earth. 

Laudato Si’ is rooted in the Pope’s name sake’s, (Saint Francis of Assisi’s), Canticle of the Sun, 1225 AD, Praise of the Creatures. Throughout Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’, now commonly referred to as The Letter, the Pope mentions Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wind and Sister Water, Brother Fire and Sister Mother Earth, which are the main characters of Saint Francis’ Praise of the Creatures.

“Because the stakes are so high, we need institutions empowered to impose penalties for damage inflicted on the environment. But we also need the personal qualities, self-control and willingness to learn from one another.”

Pope Francis, Laudito Si’, 2015

Laudato Si’ is back in the spotlight in 2022 with the release of the YouTube Originals documentary The Letter, directed by Emmy-winning Nicolas Brown. This powerful new work, became available for streaming on YouTube October 4, 2022. 

Throughout Laudato Si’, the Pope articulates with his discerning wisdom that “Many things have changed course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.” He emphasizes the harm “collective selfishness” has on our planet as well as the most vulnerable. He speaks of the need for a global “conversion” away from “consumerism,” of establishing new daily green habits that benefit all, not just ourselves as individuals, and the need to make sacrifices for the “common good.”

“If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle, and bring about significant changes in society.” 

Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 2015

Catholic Church Hierarchy

The Catholic Church is ideally structured to be a driving force in motivating its 1.3 billion faithful to make the necessary changes required for there to be a powerful positive impact on the reduction of carbon and methane emissions on all continents. Pope Francis stresses the importance of small acts. Basics like composting, increasing biodiversity, planting trees, reduce-reuse-recycle, eliminating food waste, reducing water consumption. An endless list.

There are roughly 57 million Catholic adults in the United States, most of whom attend Sunday mass regularly. During the weekly sermon, priests can increase climate and ecological awareness as well as educate the congregation about what actions to take immediately. The priests are supported by the Catholic Church hierarchy that can supply the necessary material and information needed to properly educate the various congregations around the world. Weekly doses of climate action tips delivered by a highly regarded priest in each community, one who encourages immediate follow through, is exactly what the scientists have ordered.

Have priests actually been doing this, though? It doesn’t look like very many have.

“The Church and all Christian communities have an important role to play in ecological education.” 

Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 2015

Catholics are pre-conditioned to follow cannon law and papal pronouncements. Laudato Si’ is surely the most vital papal bull passed down since the Dark Ages. The established chain of command — from the Pope, to the cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and priests — is a finely honed machine. “Failure is not an option,” as aerospace engineer Gene Kranz was quoted as saying on the Apollo 13 moon landing. So why are so many Catholics failing at this?

In the United States, there are 17 Latin Catholic cardinals, and 176 Latin Church dioceses which are overseen by bishops. The archdiocese of Washington, DC is overseen by His Eminence Wilton Cardinal Gregory.

Eco-Responsibility for 71.6 Million Hectares

Laudato Si’ brings a significant burden of responsibility to Catholic Church leaders who are woven into the fabric of thousands of communities on all seven continents. Catholics should be able to quickly transition to a more green lifestyle by following through with the numerous suggestions the Pope outlined in his letter. 

The 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, roughly 17.7 percent of the global population, can/ should be climate action role models.

How much time do we have to save God’s creation?

There already exists an eco-Catholic movement within the Catholic Church, the Laudato Si’ movement. The website asks viewers how much time they have to help save God’s creation, our common home: 30 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes, More!

What Laudato Si’ movement does:

  • Ecological Conversion: Learn, Pray, Join a community
  • Sustainability
  • Advocacy: Biodiversity & Climate Change, Divestment, The Fossil Fuels Non-Proliferation Treaty
  • Join the Movement
  • Global Campaigns

What are the primary actions the Catholic Church cardinals need to make sure happens as quickly as possible:

  • Smother the land with native biodiverse species of trees, shrubs, perennials, and groundcover by planting pollinator gardens, as well as large gardens with trails and tables and chairs for outdoor seating and enjoyment
  • Shrink monoculture lawns by 30-50 percent, replacing with biodiverse no mow groundcover and biodiverse gardens
  • Grow vegetables and fruit in large vegetable gardens
  • Promote low carbon food in schools (nondairy milk and milk products, plant-based meals)
  • Compost food and yard scraps 
  • Quickly switch to clean energy for churches, K-12 schools, colleges and universities, monasteries 
  • Paint parking lots and roads white/light grey to reflect sun’s heat
  • …and so much more!

Georgetown University

Georgetown University is located on 104 acres of prime real estate along Potomac River in Washington, DC. The property is not owned by the Holy See today, but it is seeped in Catholic traditions with Pope Francis at the head. Thus, based on its history, one would naturally assume that Georgetown would be a shining example of ecological excellence glowing atop the bluffs that overlook the picturesque Potomac below. Thousands of cars cross the Key Bridge every day, connecting Georgetown to Rosslyn in Arlington, Virginia. Most drivers can’t help but take notice of Georgetown’s massive Gothic architecture strutting its stuff along the steep stone cliffs.

View of Georgetown University from the Key Bridge

Georgetown University has an endowment of $2.5 billion (2021), with a budget of $1.5 billion. Private homes down the street are each listed for several millions dollars on tiny parcels of land. With such wealth and prestige, this patch of high value property, associated with the Catholic Church, should be able to excel at ecological actions.

But, perhaps when actions are suggested and not mandated, general and not specific, the majority do nothing.

A leisurely stroll through Georgetown’s campus quickly becomes a sad acknowledgement of indifference and missed opportunities for “ecological conversion.” Examples of numerous half-measures in caring for our common home, despite Pope Francis’ groundbreaking papal pronouncement are everywhere.

Yes, Georgetown has a 15-year green energy plan, launched in 2020, that will lead to 100% renewable energy. Yet, 15 years is a long time. Why are the roofs pitch black, rather than white? White roofs reduce the temperature inside buildings by 10ºF which cuts carbon emissions 29%. White roofs also help save the icecaps, by reflecting the sun the same way the shrinking icecaps do.

Georgetown University does have rows of available eco-bikes for students. Also, multiple LEED buildings, which are the type of actions recommended in Laudato Si’. But, there doesn’t appear to be a biodiversity expansion plan. No new pollinator gardens. No shrubs, perennials, and ground cover planted beneath each tree. No vegetable gardens. Large tracts of exposed soil with no plantings at all. No green bins for food scraps anywhere outside. Pope Francis included a whole chapter about the importance of restoring biodiversity in his book length letter.

Georgetown University’s shocking lack of biodiversity despite Pope’s call to action
Exceptional example of what boosting biodiversity looks like, National Mall, DC
Another excellent example of what increasing biodiversity looks like, National Mall, DC

GU’s 104 acres are just a tiny drop of sand in the big scheme of things, and apparently aren’t even part of the Holy See’s extensive land holdings. Nonetheless, Georgetown University and all Catholic schools and institutions have been tapped by the Pope to be the much needed climate action pillars in each community where they’re located. Georgetown University is underperforming on the ecological conversion front, despite having the necessary leadership, direction, oversight, budget, and resources. Are all the other Catholic properties equally as deficient? There needs to be a global assessment of the status of each land holding in its quest to excel at the care of our common home as the Pope requested. Executing such an assessment will make a difference in whether we can stay below 1.5ºC.

Across the Potomac is Arlington, Virginia, one of Northern Virginia’s climate action overachievers. Layers and layers of biodiversity dot the city streets. There’s also weekly curbside pickup for green food scrap bins. Arlington is racing at the speed scientists have been warning is required to save humanity. 

We all must act quickly, but large landowners have a particular obligation to put their pedal to the metal and make up for lost time. The Catholic Church is now front and center in the global consciousness and must rapidly increase its pace.

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