I am Acton’s Web Coordinator, which means I’m behind the scenes making sure everything works in regards to our web presence and web communications. My first post to the Acton PowerBlog brings good news, which is to make everyone looking for a career or internship aware that Acton is hiring talented individuals to fill several positions.

We have a very good internship program that runs primarily during the summer. Interns help out departments including programs, media, publications and communications. You might be a web developer or an aspiring theologian; most talented individuals will find something to sharpen their skills in the intern program. Summer interns always help during Acton University, which is an unforgettable experience that introduces you to hundreds of unique people from around the world. If you’re interested you can check out our internship page for additional information.

If you’re finished with college and need a real job, or you’re just looking for a change, we can help you with that too. We’re looking for a great speaker to fill the role of Program Outreach Director. This position involves plenty of travel and you’ll get to meet a lot of new people. If speaking isn’t your strong suit you could apply for the Program Outreach Coordinator position. You’ll be more involved with administrative tasks like making blog posts (probably much better ones than this) and event coordination. The media department has a similar Media Logistics Coordinator opening you could apply for instead. You’ll work with our media department that produces documentaries promoting Acton’s mission and captures the audio and video at our events. If you feel like you mesh well with Acton’s mission and objectives and need a job you may be the person we’re looking for. Visit the careers page for more information about these jobs.

Our main office is located in Grand Rapids, Mich. We accept applications from all around the world, so don’t be shy!

Economies across the globe are struggling, and rising food prices are not going to make life any easier.  The Acton Institute raised concern for rising food prices, especially corn, in 2007, when Ray Nothstine wrote a commentary on, and at the time, record prices for corn, resulting in revolts in Mexico due to rapidly rising prices for tortillas.  The commentary brought to light unintended consequences of ethanol and its subsidy, including rising food prices.

And again, with food prices on the rise, and the subsidy for ethanol up for renewal, the debate has been given new life.

Corn prices are dramatically rising and are currently more than $6 per bushel.  Compare that to a few years ago in 2005, when corn was less than $2 per bushel.  Also, in November of 2010, corn prices reached a two year high.  However, corn is not the only food stock on the rise.  The past year wheat on Chicago Board of Trade was up 74 percent, and both soybean and cotton futures have already jumped.  Although, these rising food prices have had an adverse effect across the world, and according to the World Bank, since June of 2010, the rising food prices have pushed 44 million more people into extreme poverty in developing countries.

The debate over the cause of rising food prices, especially corn has centered around whether current adverse weather conditions are the culprit, or if it can actually be contributed to ethanol subsidies from the United States.

Weather conditions have recently been less than ideal for growing crops in many parts of the world.  Last year drought in Russia and Argentina, along with torrential rains in Australia and Canada caused numerous problems for farmers, and crop production was less than expected.  Furthermore, a cool wet summer in the United States resulted in a delayed harvest.  China’s current wheat crop is being threatened by a drought which may result in even higher food prices especially because China produces more wheat than any other country.  It is estimated approximately 42 percent of China’s winter wheat crop has been hurt by the drought.

While the unfavorable weather conditions have contributed to rising food prices, critics of the ethanol subsidy claim that the subsidy has played a major role in the rising food prices.  The ethanol subsidy, which is up for renewal, places a 54 cent tariff on imported ethanol and a 45 cent tax credit for every gallon of ethanol blended with gasoline.  Current federal law also mandates the use of ethanol.  Oil companies must use a designated amount of ethanol each year, 12.6 billion gallons in 2011, which will rise to 15 billion gallons by 2015.  The ethanol subsidy is paying oil companies to abide by a mandate required by federal law.

The use of corn in ethanol is continuing to rise.  The oil industry uses more ethanol each year because of the federal mandate, and as of November 2010, ethanol production consumed 40 percent of the corn crop produced in the United States.  If the United States decides not to renew the ethanol subsidy it will not only  save 40 percent of its corn crop, but will also save $25-$30 billion over the next five years.

The United States is a major exporter of food, supplying over half the global corn exports and over 40 percent of soybean exports.  However, with more and more corn produced in the United States being used for ethanol, less corn is used for food; thus, by the law of supply and demand, increasing the price of corn.  With the ethanol subsidy creating an increase demand for corn and raising the price, more and more farmers will gravitate to growing corn instead of other crops that are also needed for food supplies around the world.

With food prices on the rise, it is imperative to think long term when deciding if the ethanol subsidy should be renewed.

Not only are the economic arguments to the ethanol subsidy important, but so are the moral arguments.  Tomorrow I will evaluate the morality of rising food prices and the ethanol subsidy.

Acton On The AirKishore Jayabalan, Director of the Acton Institute’s Rome office, made an appearance today on Vatican Radio to discuss efforts by the G-20 nations to address the growing problem of rising food prices around the world.  Jayabalan discusses how natural events and bad policy are both contributing to the sharp rise in prices seen of late.  Listen to the full interview using the audio player below:

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Budget battles have heated up recently throughout the United States, and President Obama’s budget proposal has not been exempted from the intense discussion.

The current proposal by the President pushes our national debt to $15.476 trillion or 102.6 percent of our GDP.  Furthermore, there are no cuts to entitlement spending which consist of 57 percent of the spending in the budget, or approximately $2.14 trillion.

While it is imperative to our economic recovery to have a budget that is fiscally sound, it is also crucial to have a budget that is morally sound.  There are critics to cutting entitlement programs, however, a fiscally sound budget which may require a look at entitlement cuts and reforms, will help the poor and vulnerable.  If we continue the spending trend the United States has been fostering under previous budgets than economic recovery will be hampered which means less job opportunities.  The poor and vulnerable will be dependent on entitlement programs, violating the principle of subsidarity.

A fiscally responsible budget also abides by stewardship principles.  To be good stewards we must look long term and create a strong and stable prospering economy not just now, but for our children and grandchildren.  Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro-Carámbula addresses this issue in his blog post:

…we are leaving our debts to future generations. We are asking them to pay the principal and the interest on our debt with their labors. This is akin to forcing them into a form of indentured servitude to us, and it will last long after we have gone to meet our Maker. By law, one can reject an inheritance if has more liabilities than assets, but a citizen cannot reject public debt if he wants to remain a citizen…

Rev. Sirico also articulates the necessity of morality in the Federal Budget during his recent interview with Raymond Arroyo on EWTN’s World Over.

Let’s start with Heritage Foundation’s interview of Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin: “We’re broke,” he says.

Religious leaders offer sanctuary to senators

Two Illinois clergymen offered sanctuary Friday to Democratic senators who fled Wisconsin in an effort to stop an anti-union bill. But neither said any renegade lawmakers had taken them up on their offer of hospitality. The Rev. Jason Coulter, pastor of Ravenswood United Church of Christ in Chicago, and Rabbi Bruce Elder of Congregation Hafaka in Glencoe joined several Wisconsin faith leaders in speaking out on the behalf of workers’ rights to collective bargaining and praising the missing Democrats.

Wisconsin Catholic bishops urge protection of workers’ rights as protests surge

Although Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee and other bishops around the state have not spoken in direct opposition to the proposed budget, they’ve unequivocally reiterated the importance of protecting worker’s rights in light of the Church’s social doctrine. Archbishop Listecki said in a Feb. 16 statement that even though “the Church is well aware that difficult economic times call for hard choices,” current situations “do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers.” The archbishop then quoted Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate,” in which the pontiff criticizes governments for limiting the freedom or negotiating capacity of unions. He also referenced the late Pope John Paul II’s observation that unions remain a “constructive factor” of social order and solidarity. “The bishops are very careful – it’s a balanced statement,” Huebscher said. “Because you support workers or the right of unions to assert and affirm their interests, (it) doesn’t follow that every claim made by workers is valid.”

Faith leaders voice support for unions

Bishop Linda Lee of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church sent a letter to Walker on Wednesday articulating her church’s support of unions and collective bargaining. Madison Rabbi Jonathan Biatch invoked biblical and Talmudic passages that support workers’ rights during a candlelight vigil and training event for union members in Madison. And on Thursday, the Washington-based advocacy group Catholics United issued a statement thanking Listecki for taking a stand and calling on Wisconsin officials to “suspend (their) attacks on public workers.”

Wisconsin Is the New France: Entitlement Derangement Syndrome

There is a fundamental and negative cultural shift when individuals move from thinking they should keep the fruits of their own labor to believing they’re entitled to the fruits of others’ labor. Shutting down government for the sake of benefits you didn’t pay for, and health insurance you didn’t purchase, represents an entitlement mentality run amok. Here’s a sobering thought: Entitlement Derangement Syndrome is in its infancy. Wisconsin is paralyzed because of one reform impacting a small minority of its citizens. What happens when the axe falls—as, sooner or later, it must—on Social Security? On Medicare? If the unions can mobilize tens of thousands in Madison, can the entitlement culture muster millions in Washington?

On Feb. 17, Rev. Robert Sirico was a guest on EWTN’s World Over program hosted by Raymond Arroyo. Rev. Sirico, president and co-founder of the Acton Institute, discussed the morality of federal budget making, social networking and the Catholic Church, and Live Acton vs. Planned Parenthood.

Rev. Sirico’s two segments begin at the 10:30 and 37:16 marks.

Arroyo is also joined by guests Rep. Chris Smith and Dr. Andrew Abela.

Following up on this week’s musings related to the local church, I’ve posted some thoughts on the idea of “The Church as Social Network” over at Mere Comments.

Raymond Arroyo, host of EWTN’s World Over program, has invited Acton President Rev. Robert A. Sirico on the show tonight (Thurs., Feb. 17, 8 p.m. Eastern) to discuss the federal budget as a “moral document” and the mounting federal deficit. And no doubt the conversation will explore other important faith and policy issues of the day.

Check your local cable listings or tune in live online here.

RealClearReligion has become a starting point for my day, and I’m honored to have this week’s commentary linked in today’s morning edition, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads.”

The link posted just below mine from CNN’s Belief Blog highlights problems facing a local congregation, “Atlanta church faces eviction.” One of the points of dispute facing the congregation is the status of daycare and afterschool programs that use the facility. As John Murgatroyd reports, the pastor Mark Anthony Mitchell “considers the day care to be part of his ministry.”

What this case illustrates is that the true value of churches, so to speak, can be hard to pin down. Should churches simply be measured in economic terms? A study done in Philadelphia, for instance, tried to “to calculate the economic ‘halo effect’ of a dozen religious congregations in Philadelphia – 10 Protestant churches, a Catholic parish, and a synagogue.”

One outcome of the study, in part led Ram Cnaan, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania, is that “equipped with such measurements a congregation could produce hard numbers to show community organizations, policy makers and potential funders the value of its local presence.”

But as the study notes, this can cut both ways. One of the reasons that local governments have been focusing on church properties is that, as this study found in Philadelphia, churches can sometimes seem to reduce surrounding property values. Thus, “measuring the congregations’ impact on property values backfired for St. Luke’s and the Epiphany Church in Center City, where adjacent real estate values were lower than in nearby neighborhoods. While that could not be pinned on the handsome church’s presence, the category put St. Luke’s halo into negative territory: minus $226,000.”

This brings us back, in some sense, to the issue I ended yesterday’s post with, the question of the right relationship and valuation between material and spiritual realities. While studies such as the one done in Philadelphia are clearly intended to help local churches, they run the risk of subjecting these institutions to rules of competition within which they will never really succeed if compared with local businesses. The true value of churches can’t be measured economically in these ways.

So while social science has important things to teach us about how our spiritual lives impact our lives in the material and social world, these disciplines don’t exhaust what needs to be said. Jonathan Malesic, assistant professor of theology at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, recently wrote in the Journal of Markets & Morality (PDF) that the danger of “appealing to Christianity’s positive social function is that it substitutes a theological defense of Christianity for a sociological one. It admits that it is right to judge Christianity on its social function and then leaves it up to sociologists to amass empirical evidence for and against Christianity’s positive social effects.”

It’s true as Hunter Baker responds in the context of that controversy that Christianity (and the functions of a church) cannot be reduced to its social effects. And this is precisely the mistake we see at work in an ecclesiology that views that what the church has really “always been about [is] social affiliation. You met your friends, discussed your week, talked football, shared information about good schools, talked local politics, got the scoop, and made social plans (‘Let’s get together for dinner this week!’). Even if you hated church you could feel lonely without it.” What’s missing here is anything beyond the mere sociality of the church.

There’s no sense of the marks of the true church, what you get at church that you can’t get anywhere else: proclamation of the Gospel in the preaching of the Word and the right administration of the sacraments. These are things, most especially the sacraments, that you just can’t get from Facebook.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads,” I examine some of the lingering and widening effects of the Great Recession. I focus particularly on an upward trend in foreclosures of church properties across the country. As the WSJ reports, “Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.”

I identify one particular threat in the current situation and a basic remedy. As to threats, local governments that are facing their own budgetary pressures are tempted to use the financial woes facing churches to force them to close in favor of tax-yielding properties. As to solutions, I write, “…this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.”

A report was released this week that examines charitable giving patterns, especially among those who give to local houses of worship. On first glance the analysis offered by those who conducted the survey might seem to go against the situation as I’ve depicted it. As Ron Sellars, whose firm conducted the survey, says, “Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period — including to charitable organizations.” He concludes, “Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving.”

What the survey basically finds is that those who give at various levels to local congregations are far more likely to give to other charitable causes, and to do so in a substantial way: “For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.”

But if we place these findings within the broader context of giving trends over time, and the conclusion that the share of charitable dollars going to local congregations is diminishing, the picture is rather different. This broader trend points to the possibility “that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.”

Part of this has to do with the mission of the local church as opposed to other parachurch or ministry organizations. They do, in fact, have different purposes. But one place where the mission of the local church and social service ministries meet is in the office of the deacon, and that’s a place where I look for significant renewal and serious thinking to take place in the near future.

Shawn Ritenour, an economist who blogs at Foundations of Economics (titled for his book of the same name, which is reviewed in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality), concludes on point:

Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.

Deacons are, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef put it in their Deacons Handbook, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”

These material and spiritual aspects of our lives, and consequently of the church’s and Christian’s concern, has sometimes been called the “double vocation.” What we need to recover is this sense of double vocation, the responsibility of stewardship in its fullest sense, and the proper relationship between the material and the spiritual, the penultimate and the ultimate.

As churches face the kinds of budgetary pressures I’ve outlined, I can think of no better solution than to re-examine these fundamental questions, particularly in their implications for the execution of ecclesial duties.